Ramsay MacDonald. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Ramsay MacDonald. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Looking back at the last time Labour joined a national government, John Westmoreland argues it would be a mistake for Labour to consider it now

Brexit, we are told, has divided the nation. It has split the main parties for sure, it has divided the leadership and divided the leading factions from their grassroots supporters.

The crisis in the Tory Party is also leading to a constitutional crisis. Every institution that the constitution is founded on looks to the Tories. They are the monarchist party, the Church party, the party of the Lords and Ladies, and of business. 

The utter failure of parliament to get Brexit passed has led to a huge loss of public confidence in our system of government, and so talk of national governments and “putting the country before party” is in the mouths of parliamentary wannabe leaders and media pundits.

At a time that calls for initiative, energy and creative daring, mediocrity has become celebrated as leadership quality. Jo Swinson has been the main beneficiary of this and Corbyn its chief victim.

So with this in mind it might be worth taking a look at Labour and the last national government in peacetime.

The election of 1929 produced a minority Labour government. Labour was the largest party in the House of Commons with 289 seats, followed by the Conservatives on 260 and 59 for the Liberals. Labour’s victory was partly due to an increase in the number of registered voters but mainly it was a reaction to a vicious Tory government that had provoked the General Strike in 1926, and then forced down wages to one third of their pre-strike levels.

Labour was led by the right wing of the party. Ramsay MacDonald has gone down in history as the greatest traitor to socialism of anyone that ever led the party. MacDonald as Prime Minister was ably supported by Philip Snowden as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man who got on well with bankers and Treasury officials.

For Labour’s left wing supporters there were two main issues which they wanted Labour to address immediately. Firstly trade unionists wanted the 1927 Trades Disputes Act removed from the statute books. This legislation was imposed by the Tories after the unions were defeated in the 1926 General Strike, and acted to restrict strike action, victimise militants and hold trade union leaders in fear of court actions from employers and government.

The second issue requiring immediate action was the growing unemployment caused by the economic depression.

The problem for the left was how to hold the leadership to account. Labour’s guiding document was Labour and Nation. The title sort of gives the game away. The document outlined the socialist aims that Labour aspired to, but these were to be nothing more than values or guiding principles. The PLP was to have the power to judge each policy and piece of legislation on its merits. This was to lead to the abandonment of any socialist demands on the altar of what was practical.

Therefore the removal of the Trades Disputes Act never happened. Indeed the King had to be assured by McDonald that no ‘outside bodies’ would be allowed to interfere with parliamentary business.

The fact that Labour was outnumbered by the Tories and Liberals in the Commons was extremely useful to MacDonald and Snowden. With the opposing parties against anything hinting at social justice let alone socialism their hands were always tied.

The left and the trade unions did not accept the leadership’s excuses. They argued that Labour should use their government to attack capitalism itself. They saw no reason why long-held demands for widespread nationalisation of banks, mines, transport and the land should be abandoned. The case for socialism should never be easier to make than when capitalism is in crisis.

The demand to tax the rich and control the banks was practical – and popular. So if parliamentary arithmetic made it impossible to get through real change Labour should go back to the country. As unemployment was rising rapidly this perspective was highly realistic. The problem for the left was that once in government the PLP was charged with national responsibility. This meant abandoning all commitment to the working class and doing what the Tories would do if they were in government.

Unemployment was the issue that brought down Labour. At the time they came into office ten per cent of the registered workforce was unemployed or 1.3 million workers. By 1931 that figure was up to 2.7 million – 22 per cent of the workforce.

Labour had always based their unemployment policy on ‘work or maintenance’ but faced with opposition from the other parties, the Treasury and the banks, Labour abandoned it in favour of making ‘tough but necessary decisions’. Cuts to unemployment benefits and wages – an attack on the working class by the ruling class – was now an historic duty to the nation.

To justify what Labour was about to do they set up a committee in 1931 under Sir George May, a Baronet and financial expert. As a national committee the May Committee contained Liberals and Conservatives. The deliberations focused on capitalist interests. MacDonald and Snowden agreed to its outrageous demands in the national interest.

The May Report calculated (without any justification) that the deficit for 1932-3 would be £120 million. They completely rejected taxing the rich. They put forward wage cuts for the police, teachers and the armed forces. The total economies they proposed amounted to £96.5 million, with the largest economy being unemployment insurance, saving the Treasury £66.5 million. This included a 10 per cent cut to unemployment benefit.

The Labour Cabinet accepted these proposals on 24 August, but was split 11 to 9. With Labour divided MacDonald went to see the King and after discussion with the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties a National Government was formed. However, the precondition for this approval was that the American financier JP Morgan had to agree to it so that further US loans might be realised.

That MacDonald should head the new National Government was never in doubt. The Liberal leader Herbert Samuel told the King,

“In view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be to the general interest if they were imposed by a Labour government … It would be preferable that Mr MacDonald should remain Prime Minister in such a National Government”

If anyone needs further proof that National Government means Tory government, the 1931 election results should be considered. Labour went from 289 MPs to just 46. Every member of the Labour Cabinet with the exception of George Lansbury lost their seats.

It was the working class that paid the price for MacDonald’s treachery. The 1930s saw means-tested benefits, the rise of fascism and finally war under Tory leadership. Working class interests are completely at odds with some imagined national interest.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.