I drafted this several years ago, for a discussion at a Workers' Liberty branch meeting on the first and second Labour governments. I found it useful to tell the story, then ask people to discuss some questions: the 'timeline' and discussion questions are below.
THE FIRST AND SECOND LABOUR GOVERNMENTS – TIMELINE
1918: Representation of the Peoples Act
14 December 1918: General Election – coalition government led by Lloyd George wins a landslide; Labour gains 21.5% of the votes but only 57 seats.
1919: Labour makes big gains in local government elections, particularly in London.
1919: Great wave of strikes including railways, Clydeside, even police.
1920: Communist Party formed. It applies for affiliation to the Labour Party, which refuses. Until 1925, various votes are held by Labour Party on whether to allow communist delegates, etc.
August 1920: London dockers refuse to load munitions onto the ‘Jolly George’, due to take arms to Poland for war against USSR; TUC and Labour party threaten General Strike if Britain supports war against USSR.
Late 1920: economic slump begins; mass unemployment; number of strike days per year plummets.
15 November 1922: General Election – Tories win; Labour increases to 142 seats, replacing Liberals as second largest party.
1922: Communist Saklatvala elected as MP for Battersea, backed by all Battersea labour movement (sat as MP until 1924).
5 December 1923: General Election called by Tories on the issue of tariff reform. Their electoral gambit backfires. Tories remain the largest party with 258 seats, but lose their overall majority; Labour wins 191 seats; Liberals 158 seats.
January 1924: Ramsay Macdonald forms minority Labour government; ensures that it does as little as possible to upset Liberals; uses anti-union laws against dock strike.
September 1924: Labour government resigns over its prosecution of a communist newspaper.
25 October 1924: publication of the ‘Zinoviev letter’, now generally accepted to be a forgery designed to discredit Labour and help the Tories win the General Election.
29 October 1924: General Election – Tories win by a big majority and have 412 seats; Labour loses 40 seats, now has 151; Liberals collapse from 158 seats to just 40.
May 1926: General Strike.
1928: Communist International proclaims ‘Third Period’, the period of revolution everywhere.
30 May 1929: General Election – Labour is largest party for the first time with 287 seats, but has no overall majority; Tories win 260 seats, Liberals 59. Labour forms a minority government.
1930: Labour MP Oswald Mosley proposes solutions to unemployment including nationalisation and public works – refused by Cabinet and defeated at Party conference. Mosley leaves Labour and goes on to found British Union of Fascists.
July 1931: Labour Cabinet splits over Macdonald’s plan to cut unemployment benefit to ‘balance the books’.
23 August 1931: Government resigns.
24 August 1931: Macdonald announces he will lead a ‘National Government’ in coalition with the Tories and Liberals.
27 October 1931: Landslide for the ‘National Government’, who win 556 seats (473 Conservative, 33 Liberal, 35 National Liberal, 13 National Labour, 4 National); Labour crashes to 52 seats, with 30.8% of the vote. The Communist Party stood 26 candidates who gained a total of 69,692 votes.
THE FIRST AND SECOND LABOUR GOVERNMENTS – DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. Why did working-class support for Labour grow dramatically after 1918? Why did Labour replace the Liberals as the second party during the 1920s?
2. Was the Communist Party right to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party? Was this just a gesture, knowing that they would be refused?
3. For Ramsay Macdonald, Herbert Morrison and their allies, the watchwords for Labour in government (local or national) were ‘continuity’ and ‘proving that Labour is responsible’. How would you have argued against this?
4. Given that it was a minority – and not even the largest party – should Labour have refused to form a government in 1923-4?
5. Why did working-class voters turn against Labour at the end of 1924?
6. Having experienced the woeful shortcomings of Labour in government in 1924, shouldn’t Marxists have realised that Labour was doomed to betray the working class, and instead have concentrated on building the Communist Party?
7. Why was the Communist Party unable to win majority support within the labour movement and to radically change the Labour Party?
8. The 1929-31 Labour government failed to defend working-class people against the effects of the depression. What should it have done?
9. Who was to blame for Labour’s disastrous defeat in 1931? Was it a simple case of the treachery of Macdonald and his allies?
10. Today, it would be good to see a split in Labour, with the left and the unions breaking with Blair-Brown-ism, and refounding a genuine workers’ party. But doesn’t the experience of 1931 show that splits are disastrous for Labour?