The first Labour government

The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government

By David Torrance

Published by Bloomsbury, 2024, £20

Reviewed by Nick Chaffey

War and revolutions, mass strikes and demonstrations, economic and political crisis, four elections in six years. Sounds familiar? But this was 1924 – Labour in government for the first time faced with a deep economic and social crisis.

David Torrance’s book, The Wild Men, implies this was a government that pursued radical policies. But those policies, feared by the ruling capitalist class and hoped for by the working class, didn’t materialise. As a force for socialist change, Labour’s first government failed, opening up a stormy and revolutionary period in British history.

Torrance takes us through 1924 via ten ministers in the Labour minority government, who faced the demands of the working class and the obstacles of the capitalists in parliament. The latter were represented by the Liberals, now in decline and losing working-class votes to Labour, and the determined reaction of the Tories, increasingly fearful of striking workers and the threat of revolution.

In the face of war, sharpening inter-imperialist rivalries and the decline of Britain’s dominant position, the Tories and Liberals were increasingly divided over what route to take. In its prime, free trade had suited the British capitalists, represented by the Liberals, eager to exploit profits from every corner of the globe. As those markets faced competition from rivals, the Tories in particular began to promote a more protectionist economic policy.

These tensions resulted in the political turmoil of the post-war years, with elections in 1918, 1922, and December 1923, the latter leading to the 1924 minority Labour government, which didn’t last the year.

Internationally, including in Britain, the aftermath of the first world war, the economic crisis, its political reflection and, most importantly, the class struggle, had given rise to revolutionary movements. October 1917 saw the working class come to power in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party. Bringing an end to the horrors of war, nationalising the land, banks and industry, introducing the eight-hour day and universal suffrage, inspired workers internationally.

Other revolutions followed – in Germany from 1919 to 1923, Hungary in 1919 – although unlike in Russia these failed to overthrow capitalism because of the weakness of revolutionary parties in those countries.

Mutinies amongst soldiers followed the end of the war against attempts to remobilise troops to fight in the civil war against the infant workers’ state in Russia. In Britain, London dockers refused to load arms bound for counter-revolutionary forces in Russia. A short post-war boom gave way to a sharp recession in 1919 that saw a huge increase in unemployment and the eruption of working-class struggles; notably that of the Poplar councillors in East London, 30 of whom were jailed in 1921 for refusing to cut ‘poor relief’ for the unemployed, and forcing important concessions from the Tory government.

The Labour Party at that time was a forum of affiliated trade unions and socialist organisations debating and promoting different ideas about how the problems of the working-class could be solved. The Russian revolution pushed the Labour Party to the left, and in 1918 it adopted the socialist Clause Four, which called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

However, Ramsay MacDonald, who became Labour’s first prime minister, like many of the most prominent Labour leaders at the time, was effectively a ‘liberal’ who rejected class struggle and supported the Fabian idea that capitalism could gradually be reformed in the interests of the working class. Torrance shows that despite all the capitalists’ fears that MacDonald was a fig leaf for Bolshevism and might succumb to the demands of the organised working class, it was the pressures of the capitalist class which prevailed.

Labour in government was faced with vying class pressures. Aroused expectations amongst the working class demanding action on the key issues of unemployment, housing and education; and the capitalists who, looking to defend their profits and power at a time of economic crisis and the decline of British imperialism, intensified their pressure for any reforms to be limited.

Meaningful and lasting reforms for the working class could only be implemented through a break with capitalism and the adoption of socialist policies, carried out through the mass mobilisation of the working class.

But from the very start MacDonald’s cabinet was stuffed with representatives of the right, including former Liberals and Tories, rather than include more working-class, left-wing MPs, like the ‘Red Clydesiders’ who had led mass strikes and rent strikes in Glasgow during and after the war.

Before MacDonald took office, Torrance quotes Jimmy Thomas, right-wing rail union leader, telling a senior civil servant: “If the King asks… no extreme legislation will be introduced, no playing up to the Clyde Division! But an endeavour to carry on the government on sound lines”.

Turning to the Liberals for support, manifesto pledges were ditched for pro-capitalist policies, that addressed the needs of the capitalists in international relations including increased military spending for the navy, and the watering down of housing reforms and measures to tackle unemployment, as well as demands for nationalisation.

Torrance shows Labour dealing with council funding needs by defending Tory controls on spending.  A budget that saw surpluses used to pay off the national debt to the banks rather than improve benefits and invest in council housing, led the Liberal Lord Haldane to say, “there is nothing socialistic about this budget”. Education funding to provide increased school places was blocked.

With strikes for increased wages, including farm workers on the royal estates, criticisms of Labour’s failure to act grew. The party leader in the Commons, JR Clynes, complained that supporters “expected us to do everything in a few weeks… [we] could not perform miracles… [so they] bitterly abused the government”.

Facing hostility from the Tories and Liberals in parliament, representing the interests of the capitalist class, what should a minority Labour government have done to defend those of the working class? Following events in Britain closely, Leon Trotsky wrote that a programme calling for taking over the land, mines and railways, nationalising the banks, and declaring that the resources released by the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords would go  towards the construction of housing for the workers, would “unleash tremendous enthusiasm”.

If, wrote Trotsky, “MacDonald walked into Parliament, laid his programme on the table, rapped lightly with his knuckles, and said ‘accept it or I’ll drive you all out’ (saying it more politely than I’ve phrased it here) – if he did this, Britain would be unrecognisable in two weeks. MacDonald would receive an overwhelming majority in any election”. But MacDonald and the right wing feared a struggle by the working class and demands for an end to capitalism.

Whilst the capitalists were relieved by MacDonald’s willingness to betray workers’ aspirations and compromise on what were relatively modest policies in Labour’s manifesto, they continued to be terrified by the rising tide of militancy, reflected also in support for the recently formed Communist Party. The left Labour MPs were vocal in raising their criticisms under pressure from their own ranks. Torrance shows the fear of growing support for revolutionary ideas in MacDonald’s mind from a small newspaper cutting found inside his diary alluding to communists being “anxious to get inside the Labour Party in order to remove the Fabian element and establish a party on a definite class basis”.

The first months in government were no honeymoon. An unofficial rail strike was followed by strikes of dockers and transport workers. Revealing the real outlook of the Labour leadership, Torrance shows how MacDonald turned to previous Tory strike-breaking measures. These included procedures to deal with emergencies, under the authority of the Cabinet’s Supply and Transport Organisation that was staffed by Josiah Wedgwood as Chief Civil Commissioner, who was told by senior Tories it was his job to “protect the constitution against a Bolshevik inspired General Strike”.

Fears grew, and by April a cabinet committee was launched to investigate the role of Communist Party members. Torrance himself comments, “Labour’s willingness to use the strike-breaking apparatus of the previous Conservative government went down badly”. The Home Secretary Arthur Henderson commented that “the epidemic of Labour revolts (reminded him) of what was happening in Russia in 1917 against the Kerensky government”.

Lenin had advised revolutionary socialists in Britain to unite and form a Communist Party (CP) that would seek the support of the mass of the working class, via the workplaces, the trade unions and through seeking affiliation to the Labour Party – the ‘parliament’ of the working class. In Lenin’s view, by offering a common struggle against capitalist attacks and for economic and social reforms, while maintaining its own organisational independence and revolutionary programme, the CP would gain mass support as the limitations of the pro-capitalist Labour leaders were exposed. Five times between 1920 and 1924 the CP applied to join the Labour Party and was rejected every time by the leadership. But CP members continued to have some influence on the party through their trade union membership.

MacDonald’s minority government ended in disarray following the arrest of the editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper, John Campbell, who had published an appeal to troops not to act as strike breakers. Under pressure from the left, Campbell was released, and the Tories cried foul. The Campbell case, boosted by a forged letter purportedly from the chair of the Communist International, Grigory Zinoviev, favouring the government’s normalisation of relations with Russia as assisting the “revolutionising of the proletariat”, was used to mount a red scare in the election after the administration fell.

MacDonald was optimistic that his moderation had demonstrated Labour’s fitness to govern in the eyes of the capitalist class, and that Labour would win a new election. But to the mass of the working class the first Labour government had been a huge disappointment. Despite this, Labour gained over one million votes in 1924, but the result saw a fall in its MPs and a large majority for the Tories as support for the Liberals collapsed.

As MacDonald left office, Torrance quotes Tory leader Stanley Baldwin on his party’s hope that the Labour Party would go on to deal a blow to the communists: “The next step must be the elimination of the communists by Labour. Then we shall have two parties, the party of the Right and the party of the Left”. Both safe for the capitalists.

While subsequent Labour governments, like the 1924 government, continued to defend the interests of the capitalists in power, the support of the mass of the working-class and the ability of the rank-and-file to influence and pressure the leadership of the party meant that it was not until Tony Blair’s reforms in the 1990s – abolishing Clause Four and blocking off the democratic channels that could allow the working class to assert its influence – that Baldwin’s hope was fulfilled.

The rule changes introduced by Ed Miliband that, accidently, led to the Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader in 2015 – raising the potential for the Labour Party to become a mass workers’ party by breaking with the capitalist-supporting Blairites – have been reversed, democracy crushed, and the left-wing policies of the Corbyn era rooted out.

An era of economic and political crisis and war has returned to Britain and the world with a vengeance. But while in the tumultuous period of crisis and class struggle that opened up after the first Labour government – including the 1926 general strike – the mass of the organised working class, through the trade unions, still had the potential to express its interests politically through the Labour Party, that is not the case today. A new mass workers’ party is needed – and a strong revolutionary organisation that can provide the programme and strategy for the working class to take power, which the weak and then Stalinised Communist Party was unable to do in the revolutionary ferment of the inter-war period in Britain after the fall of the first Labour government.