Posts Tagged ‘Labour History’

No room for complacency

May 15, 2010

It has been noted that many Labourites are quite comfortable with our party’s return to opposition.

The thinking goes that after thirteen years in power it will be healthy for Labour to take some time out, have a ponder about its future direction and then come up with some stonking new policies.

Harriet Harman told an upbeat meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party this week that a return to government would not be far off.

I’ll admit that I partly share this sense of optimism. Labour obviously couldn’t remain in government forever and needed to refresh itself.

Cameron was at least denied a parliamentary majority. Many new Tory MPs obtained fewer than 2000 votes over the Labour candidates. Taking many of these seats back at the next election should not be an impossible task.

With the Lib Dems signed up to a coalition with the Tories, political logic suggests that as people become disenchanted with the new government they will turn to supporting the Labour as the principal party of opposition.

All seems hunky dory then. But I can’t help but feel that we Labourites are getting a little bit complacent about the ease of returning to power after a brief spell in opposition.

The last time that a party was limited to only a single term in office in the UK was back in the 1970s. The pattern since then (and indeed in previous years) had been for parties to enjoy extended periods of government – and unfortunately it’s usually been the Tories enjoying this most.

And look at the list of Labour leaders elected immediately after general election defeats: Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Notice how none of these fellas went on to occupy No 10. (Ok, John Smith would perhaps have been the exception to this trend had he not died)

Of course there are no fixed laws of politics which mean that we’re guaranteed a decade of Tory government. The fact that the Tories have had to establish the first peacetime coalition since the National Government of the 1930s demonstrates how unpredictable things are.

But I think claims that opposition will necessarily be easy and that Labour can be confident of returning to power within the next few years should be tempered. Some sober caution would not go amis.


Akehurst on Foot.

March 5, 2010

Luke Akehurst’s thoughts on the passing of Michael Foot are worth reading.

I have read Foot’s much-praised biography of Aneurin Bevan. It’s a great work, though I can’t in all honesty say that I found it as life-changing as Ellie Gellard apparently did.

Foot’s death robs us of someone who was campaigning against fascism in the 1930s – and for that alone humanity is left poorer without him.

Some have remarked upon Foot’s principles. Others have reminded us of his failings as a political leader.

It shouldn’t be too much to want both socialism and the winning of elections.

Complaint to Dave of ‘Though Cowards Flinch’.

December 9, 2009

Comrade Dave of the blog ‘Though Cowards Flinch’ has written an assessment of today’s pre-budget report. He makes decent points on the good and bad aspects of Darling’s announcements.

However, I must protest at this: “About the best thing one can say regarding today’s pre-budget report is that it’s not quite so bad as Ramsay MacDonald slashing unemployment benefits in order to return public finances to some ‘order’”.

Whilst not wishing to detract from the central thrust of Dave’s post, my determination to try to rehabilitate Ramsay MacDonald’s reputation (at least partially) means that I can’t leave this be.

The public spending cuts eventually imposed by the National Government were more the responsibility of Chancellor Philip Snowden than Ramsay MacDonald. Snowden was the true disciple of orthodox economics; MacDonald was wishy washy on the subject and would have been pushed in any direction wanted by a forceful Chancellor. The Labour Cabinet also voted by a majority to accept the cuts, but Arthur Henderson made it clear he would resign from the government rather than let this pass.  

It’s wrong to demonise Ramsay MacDonald. It absolves people like Snowden who were more blameworthy. Anyway, instead of focusing on individual failures, it’s more interesting to ask why the Labour Party was so institutionally clueless when it came to the question of how to govern the country in a socialist manner.

Pedantic complaint over.

Why ‘Against the Odds’ should not be in the running.

November 14, 2009

 Last week LabourList published an article  calling for the short film ‘Against the Odds’, which was shown at Conference, to be Labour’s next party political broadcast. Several hundred Labourites have joined a Facebook group in support of this proposal. 

‘Against the Odds’ can be viewed below:

Whilst I am someone who gets very excited about Labour history and who also likes the idea of a positive, upbeat video that reminds people of the party’s achievements over the years, I think there are some obvious reasons why ‘Against the Odds’ would not make a suitable PPB.

It concentrates on the past and does not mention any current or future policies. Surely one of the principal points of a PPB is to reinforce voters’ awareness of what the party is doing and what it plans to do. Considering the state of the economy and other pressing issues that Labour urgently needs to win voters’ trust on (public services, crime, immigration, the war in Afghanistan), it would be ridiculously self-indulgent to use a whole PPB to bang on about good ol’Labour opposing Mosley in the 1930s and Apartheid in South Africa. Even if voters – like Labour Party loyalists – do get a warm fuzzy feeling out of seeing images of Bevin, Bevan, Wilson, Kinnock et al (please note how unlikely this is) they may still think at the end of the broadcast: “Well, that was nice but I’ve got no idea what Labour is going to do to help me find a job today”.

We are now living in the longest period of continuous Labour government ever. It may therefore seem a tad desperate for a Labour PPB to contain so many references to the achievements of the past. After 12 years of Labour in office, shouldn’t this government have secured enough popular reforms that it can stand on its own record rather than having to hold up the establishment of the NHS in 1948 as a reason why today’s voters should stick with the Labour Party? I know this is related to the first point but it’s so important that it needs reinforcing! Talking almost entirely about the party’s past in a PPB reeks of lacking confidence in the party’s present and of lacking ideas for the party’s future!

The corniness factor of the film is pretty high. Maybe that isn’t in itself a massive problem (plenty of reasonable successful PPBs have been a bit cringeworthy) but some of the schmaltz of ‘Against the Odds’ would be vulnerable not only to mocking but also to serious criticism – I’m thinking especially of the reference to the “true Brits” at 2:08. The press would inevitably compare this to that dimwit Sarah Palin’s moronic claim that Republican voters represented the “real America”. I can see the Tory press and blogs easily establishing a meme along the lines of: ‘Controversial ZaNuLabour broadcast says that only Labour supporters can be considered “true Brits”‘.

To be pedantic: some of the history isn’t on very firm ground. Although Labour members did join in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, the official party line was that people should stay away from the anti-fascist demonstration. To be ultra-pedantic: for some reason the third image in the film is a photograph of the moment when it was declared that Labour-turned-National Government Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had lost his parliamentary seat to Labour candidate Emanuel Shinwell in the 1935 general election. Yes, MacDonald turned traitor, but spitting on his memory is unnecessarily vindictive. He did much to help build up the early Labour Party and was Labour’s first Prime Minister, after all.

I am willing to change my mind about ‘Against the Odds’. If focus group research, for example, suggests that voters respond positively to the film then obviously everything I’ve written here is wrong. Also: if the party does not have enough money to make a better PPB then ‘Against the Odds’ would be better than nothing.

However, I think Labour has to do better than this. In the LabourList article it’s suggested that “perhaps we need a little less ‘head-ruled’ campaigning and we should let the heart take over for a while”. That’s not going to work. If we take politics seriously and genuinely want to try to win the election rather than just feel good about ourselves then we need to put voters’ concerns at the heart of our campaigning strategy. I don’t see how ‘Against the Odds’ does that.

At best ‘Against the Odds’ being broadcast would probably be a non-event that wins precisely zero votes for Labour but maybe reinforces the enthusiasm of some party activists. At worst the broadcast could actually turn more people against us as we offer them an idealised version of the party’s history rather than a popular policy programme designed to address the issues of today. 

Tory concern for Attlee’s memory.

November 12, 2009

Tory blogmeister Iain Dale has a post about the Clement Attlee statue outside Limehouse Library. He is complaining that Labour have failed to treat Attlee’s statue with the respect it deserves.

There have been problems with hoodlums vandalising the statue and so it has spent many years boarded up for its own protection.

Despite the local authority – Tower Hamlets – being a Labour-controlled borough and despite Clement Attlee frequently winning the accolade of ‘top Labour leader of all time’, it has seemingly fallen to a Tower Hamlets Tory councillor to lead a campaign for the statue’s repair.

I’d be interested in hearing the local comrades’ point-of-view before joining in the Conservative condemnation of the Labour Party for neglecting to properly honour the memory of this socialist politician.

It has to be said: good on Dale and the Tory councillor for drawing attention to the statue.

However, reading some of the comments left on Dale’s post it is clear that not all Tories agree with the idea of respecting Attlee:

Rush-is-Right said…

Iain, are you really saying that Atlee was a great man who should be honoured?

The man who oversaw the pissing away of the Marshall Plan aid money, the creation of the monstrosity that is the NHS, and nationalised the railways, the mines and goodness knows whatever else?

Are you mad?

Pete Moore said…

Crush the statue, melt it down, do anything but unveil again an image of the disastrous Attlee, leader of (still) the greatest bunch of collectivist thieves in our history.

For thirty five years our people suffered under his socialist legacy. May God damn him.

Whilst some Tories do the decent thing and recognise Attlee’s positive contribution to Britain, other Nasty Party elements should perhaps be considered the prime suspects for the acts of vandalism on the statue?

Jennie Lee and the Open University

August 1, 2009

I’ve just enjoyed a very cheap and very productive evening. I have remainedin Jako Towers and have been sorting out lots of Labour leaflets into appropriate piles for delivery across my ward over the next few weeks. At the same time as doing this I watched BBC 4’s documentary ‘Happy Birthday OU: 40 Years of the Open University’

The story of the Open University was told by Premier Inn-loving comedian Lenny Henry, who also happens to be a graduate of the OU. Henry explained to the audience how influential the efforts Jennie Lee, Minister for the Arts in the first Wilson government, were to its establishment in 1969. She played a key role in supporting the OU and making sure that it went ahead despite the misgivings of some in the political and academic establishments.

Wilson went on to declare that the Open University was the greatest achievement of his government – an opinion that Tony Benn supported in the documentary. More than three million people have studied at the OU since its foundation and it has been consistently rated the top university for student satisfaction.

Jennie Lee was of course the wife of Nye Bevan, the Labour politician responsible for bringing about the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

So between them this stridently socialist couple bequeathed to the nation two of the best-loved and most enduring institutions we have! 

Bevan and Lee never had children – apparently Lee did not want to become a mother. However, if they had would the offspring have inherited super socialist powers? Or would it have felt obliged to rebel against its parents and turned into an arch-reactionary?

This is what I wondered to myself as the documentary came to an end and I completed my 24th pile of leaflet delivery rounds.

Right-wing nutters and their obsession with birth certificates

July 29, 2009

BIRTHERSOver in the United States there are a number of conservatives of the tin foil hat wearing variety who believe that Barack Obama is not an American citizen and therefore declare his presidency to be illegitimate.

The ‘birthers’ (as they have become known) insist that Obama does not have a proper US birth certificate and that he is instead a citizen of Kenya. The loopiest of the loopiest think that this is all part of a massive conspiracy concocted by dirty foreigners who want to bring down the United States from the inside.

It’s all very silly and very mad. There is an unpleasant racial element to the whole thing as well, of course, with many birthers expressing nativist sentiments and incredulity that a black man could become President of the US without cheating.

Watch Jon Stewart’s take on the birthers – and those in the media and mainstream politics who are irresponsibly encouraging them – here.

Is Tory blogger Donal Blaney a paid-up member of the birther movement? He claims not to be, but still delights in repeating the allegations made against Obama by the lunatic fringes of the American right.

Blaney constantly refers to Obama as America’s “first Kenyan-American president“. He seems to doubt the authenticity of the official account of Obama’s life. For some reason, he also has a weird fixation with Barack Hussein Obama’s middle-name.

Anyway, efforts by reactionary cranks to undermine a democratically elected politician through spreading not-very-wild allegations about the circumstances of their birth are not new.

Ramsay MacDonald (of whom I have posted a few times before!) faced similarly pathetic tactics.

During the First World War MacDonald, then Labour MP for Leicester, became notorious for his steadfast opposition to the conflict and his attempts to negotiate an end to the fighting through the Socialist International. At a time when even the majority of the Labour movement got caught up in pro-war jingoism, MacDonald was one of the few voices questioning the value of sending hundreds of thousands of men to slaughter each other in the trenches.

Unsurprisingly, MacDonald’s anti-war stand incurred the wrath of the populist right-wing press. The journal John Bull wrote:

“We call him traitor, coward, cur. We demand his trial by Court Martial, his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King’s enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn.”

Lovely stuff. Best of British. The culmination of John Bull‘s campaign against MacDonald in 1915 was the revelation that – *shock horror* – the name MacDonald went under was slightly different to that recorded on his birth certificate and that his parents were not married:

“For months past – ever since the man who calls himself James Ramsay MacDonald, but whose real name is James McDonald Ramsay, has stood aloof from the almost unanimous response of the nation to the call of the King – we have persistently labelled him as a traitor and a coward; and we have called upon Leicester to rid itself of the stigma of having such a ‘representative’ in Parliament…

…we have remained silent with regard to certain facts which have been in our possession for a long time. First of all, we knew that this man was living under an adopted name – and that he was registerd as James McDonald Ramsay – and that, therefore, he had obtained admission to the House of Commons in false colours, and was probably liable to heavy penalties to have his election declared void.

But to have disclosed this state of things would have imposed upon us a very painful and unsavoury duty. We should have been compelled to produce the man’s birth certificate. And that would have revealed what today we are judtified in revealing…It would have revealed that ‘James Ramsay MacDonald’, MP for Leicester, late ‘leader’ of the Labour Party, late member of a Royal Commission, under the seal of His Majesty, the leading light of the Union of Democratic Control – libeller and slanderer of his country – it would have revealed him as the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl!

The journal then printed out a copy of MacDonald’s birth certificate. It was apparently news to him that he had originally been named ‘James McDonald Ramsay’ and he was genuinely shocked by the revelation.

MacDonald’s political career collapsed in the period immediately following the First World War. It seems highly unlikely that the ‘birther’ allegations he faced were as significant in explaining his temporary lack of electoral appeal as the accusations of treachery and allegiance with the Kaiser, but they certainly didn’t help his situation.

I hope Obama has more success in defending himself from today’s swivel-eyed, birth certificate-waving loons!

Ramsay MacDonald responds to the economic crisis

July 12, 2009
So what did you think of my speech?

"So what did you think of my speech?"

A week or so ago VoteRedGoGreen wrote a post on what he would like to hear Gordon Brown say in a speech outlining the Labour government’s response to the country’s economic problems.

In October 1930 Britain was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. The U.S stock market had crashed in 1929 and the worldwide economic downturn was exacerbated by the onset of protectionist fervour (such as the moronic U.S Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) and a subsequent collapse in global trade. Unemployment was growing and Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government was feeling the pressure.

Of course, it all went horribly wrong after a bit, but MacDonald’s speech to the 1930 Labour Party Conference (the last he was to make, if I’m not mistaken) was a tour de force which managed to convey the impression that here was a Prime Minister undaunted by the scale of crisis:

“So, my friends, we are not on trial; it is the system under which we live. It has broken down, not only in this little island, it has broken down in Europe, in Asia, in America; it has broken down everywhere, as it was bound to break down.

And the cure, the new path, the new idea is organisation – organisation which will protect life, not property.

I appeal to you, my friends, today, with all that is going on outside – I appeal to you to go back on to your socialist faith. Do not mix that up with pettifogging patching, either of a Poor Law kind or of Relief Work kind.

Construction, ideas, architecture, building line upon line, stone upon stone, storey upon storey; it will not be your happiness, and it will certainly not be mine, to see that every stone laid in sincerity has been well laid.

But I think it will be your happiness, as it is mine, to go on convinced that the great foundations are being well laid…and that by skilled craftsmen, confident in each other’s goodwill and sincerity, the temple will rise and rise and rise until at last it is complete, and the genius of humanity will find within it an appropriate resting place.”

Ok, so the image of a socialist temple being slowly but surely built is a bit wacky, and MacDonald seemingly managed to get through the speech without any serious discussion of government policy.

But it was still a triumph. Through appeal to principle, MacDonald successfully rallied the previously discontented party behind him (temporarily at least).

James Maxton’s motion criticising the government had the misfortune to be scheduled for discussion immediately after MacDonald’s address. After the enthusiastic cheering for the leader’s speech had begun to die down, big leftie Maxton rose to half-heartedly condemn the leadership’s feebleness.

Maxton had to pay tribute to MacDonald’s “very great speech” even as he listed his many complaints against MacDonald’s policies (or lack of). The Maxton motion was then defeated by 1,800,000 votes to 330,000.

Ideally a leader’s speech is solid in both the style and substance departments.

Talk about values and utopian visions (unlikely these days!), fine, but be prepared to explain to your party how you will make those values and visions a policy reality.

We’ll see what Gordo comes up with in the autumn…

Brown on Maxton

June 19, 2009

I was having a quick look through Gordon Brown’s biography of left-wing firebrand James Maxton MP today.

Brown has divided the Clydesider’s life into four sections:

  1. 1. Socialist in the making.
  2. 2. Socialism into Parliament.
  3. 3. Socialism in our time.
  4. 4. Socialist retreat.

 I wonder if a future biography of Gordo will be based on similar divisions. Do you think we are at stage four now, or is stage three just around the corner?

The basic thesis of the book seems to be that the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s were too timid to accept the radical ideas put foward by socialists such as Maxton. The PM comes across as a big fan of Maxton, writing that he “had every quality except one: the gift of knowing how to succeed”.


The days when the Prime Minister shopped at the Co-op and was expected to attend E.C meetings

May 24, 2009
My name is Ramsay MacDonald and I shop at the Co-op because they are good with food

"My name is Ramsay MacDonald and I shop at the Co-op because they are good with food"

Due to exams and suchlike rudely getting in the way, it is taking me quite a while to get through Marquand’s biography of Ramsay MacDonald. Regular readers may recall my Valentine’s Day special post about how the first Labour Prime Minister hooked up with his missus. Well, I’ve just got to 1924 and MacDonald is the new occupant of Number 10 Downing Street. 

His salary was £5000, which the Measuring Worth website indicates was a very reasonable amount. However, the expenses system seems to have been much stricter back then. He had to pay out of his own pocket for such items as linen and china to use in Number 10 (no flat screen TVs back in those days for politicians to splash out on, and MacDonald does not appear to have wanted to keep ducks well-housed in the Downing Street garden).

Even though he was the Prime Minister and so presumably would have to hold political summits, play host to important foreign dignitaries, and things like that, he did not receive an entertainment allowance. It was clear that the political system had not adjusted to workers’ representatives reaching such positions of power – occupants of Number 10 were expected to be wealthy men who could support themselves. Remember that MPs had only been paid an official salary since 1911 and that MacDonald was the first Prime Minister from a working class background.

MacDonald was therefore very keen to economise. He had always shopped at the Co-op and saw no need to change just because he was now PM. Groceries were delivered to Downing Street in a Co-op van. To save coal MacDonald and his family always ate their meals in the official banqueting rooms which were centrally heated rather than in their private quarters. Such frugality should be an example to us all.

They dont make political posters like they used to

They don't make political posters like they used to

It was probably unfamiliarity with civil servants rather than a desire to keep costs to a minimal that led the new Prime Minister to insist that all letters arriving for him should be sent unopenened for his personal attention. This arrangement didn’t last very long. Presumably MacDonald soon realised there were more important things for him to do rather than spend all day reading letters from cranks complaining about there being too many of those damned automobile contraptions on the roads or whinging that the British Empire shouldn’t be marked on maps with the colour pink as it was too sissy.

MacDonald’s Constituency Labour Party in Aberavon were also finding it hard to adjust to the fact that their MP was running the country. MacDonald’s secretary in Downing Street was sent a letter from his constituency agent setting out the arrangements he had made for MacDonald’s next visit: “Monday afternoon two meetings on at the same time…In the evening attend the annual meeting of the divisional Labour Party…I know every district will be asking for him at the E.C meeting”.

MacDonald’s secretary had to politely inform the agent that unfortunately the Prime Minister would not be able to attend as those dates clashed with budget day. This led to an ongoing exchange of letters, with the agent forwarding angry resolutions from local branches of the Labour Party who were demanding that the Prime Minister attend their 1924 versions of pub quizzes and trips to the curry house and MacDonald’s secretary having to patiently explain why it was more important that the Prime Minister be in Parliament for the announcement of Labour’s first national budget.

And here endeth today’s Labour history lesson.