Spartacus Blog

Left-wing pressure groups in the Labour Party

John Simkin

In a recent interview he gave to The Guardian newspaper, Neil Kinnock argued that their are strong connections between Momentum, and Militant, the organization that he fought against soon after he became leader of the Labour Party. Kinnock quotes George Orwell as saying "People who forget their past are doomed to relive it. That’s why we’ve got to make sure we don’t forget that past.” (1)

Politicians are always attempting to find parallels with events from the past. There are of course similarities as both Militant and Momentum were left-wing pressure groups within the Labour Party. Kinnock, however used another left-wing pressure group, Tribune, to help him be elected as leader in October 1983. He won the votes of 91% of party members but only a minority of MPs. Kinnock, therefore employed Peter Mandelson, to develop a strategy to isolate the left. This involved the expulsion of Militant figures such as Terry Fields, Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. (2)

However, this was a very different situation to the one facing the Labour Party today. Militant at its peak only had 8,000 members and had little impact on party policy. In contrast Momentum has the support of 17,000 members, and has been an important factor in getting its candidate elected to become leader of the Labour Party. A much better parallel is with the Socialist League that supported George Lansbury when he became leader of the party in October 1932. It is a story that Momentum should take some time to study as although it dominated policy making at the time, its leaders were expelled in 1937.

The clash between left and right began when the Labour Party was formed on 27th February 1900. Representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party (ILP) the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Fabian Society, met with trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. The unions represented had a total of 570,000 members. (3)

Ramsay Macdonald of the ILP told the meeting that the intention of the conference was an "attempt in good-humoured tolerance" to create a united organization. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the ILP, two from the SDF, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists. (4)

It was uneasy alliance of socialists and liberals. The SDF was established by H. M. Hyndman, who had been converted to Marxism by reading Das Capital in 1881. Members over the years included William Morris, Tom Mann, John Burns. Eleanor Marx, George Lansbury, Edward Aveling, H. H. Champion, Theodore Rothstein, Helen Taylor, John Scurr, Guy Aldred, Dora Montefiore, Frank Harris, Clara Codd, John Spargo and Ben Tillett.

Under the leadership of Keir Hardie, the ILP had been formed in 1893. It was decided that the main objective of the party would be "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Leading figures in this new organization included Robert Smillie, George Bernard Shaw, George Barnes, John Glasier, Philip Snowden, Edward Carpenter and Ramsay Macdonald.

The Independent Labour Party

In 1895 the ILP had 35,000 members. However, in the 1895 General Election the ILP put up 28 candidates but won only 44,325 votes. All the candidates were defeated but the ILP began to have success in local elections. Over 600 won seats on borough councils and in 1898 the ILP joined with the the SDF to make West Ham the first local authority to have a Labour majority. This experience convinced Keir Hardie that to obtain national electoral success, it would be necessary to join forces with other left-wing groups.

On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society, met with trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the Independent Labour Party, two from the Social Democratic Federation, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists.

Whereas the ILP, SDF and the Fabian Society were socialist organizations, the trade union leaders tended to favour the Liberal Party. As Edmund Dell pointed out in his book, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999): "The ILP was from the beginning socialist... but the trade unions which participated in the foundation were not yet socialist. Many trade union leaders were, in politics, inclined to Liberalism and their purpose was to strengthen labour representation in the House of Commons under Liberal party auspices. Hardie and the ILP nevertheless wished to secure the collaboration of trade unions. They were therefore prepared to accept that the LRC would not at the outset have socialism as its objective." (5)

Ramsay MacDonald was chosen as the secretary of the LRC. As he was financed by his wealthy wife, Margaret MacDonald, he did not have to be paid a salary. The LRC put up fifteen candidates in the 1900 General Election and between them they won 62,698 votes. Two of the candidates, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell won seats in the House of Commons. Hardie was the leader of the ILP but Bell, the General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, once in Parliament, associated himself with the Liberal Party. (6)

Keir Hardie (c. 1900)
Keir Hardie (c. 1900)

Many members of the party were uncomfortable with the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation and H. M. Hyndman had very little influence over the development of the new organization Hardie was hostile to the SDF and thought it vitally important that he persuaded the more conservative trade union movement to support the LRC. In August 1901 the SDF disaffiliated from the LRC. (7)

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was the main left-wing pressure group in the early years of the Labour Party. Ralph Miliband, the author of Parliamentary Socialism (1972) has argued that its members attempted "to push their leaders into accepting more radical policies and programmes, and to press upon them more militant attitudes in response to challenges from Labour's opponents". (8)

In the 1906 General Election the LRC won twenty-nine seats. This included Ramsay MacDonald (Leicester) Keir Hardie (Merthyr Tydfil), Philip Snowden (Blackburn), Arthur Henderson (Barnard Castle), George Barnes (Glasgow Blackfriars), Will Thorne (West Ham), Fred Jowett (Bradford) and James Parker (Halifax). At a meeting on 12th February, 1906, the group of MPs decided to change from the LRC to the Labour Party. Hardie was elected chairman and MacDonald was selected to be the party's secretary. Despite providing the two leaders the party, only six of the MPs were supporters of the ILP. (9)

This success was due to a secret alliance with the Liberal Party. The Clarion newspaper wrote: "There is probably not more than one place in Britain (if there is one) where we can get a Socialist into Parliament without some arrangement with Liberalism, and for such an arrangement Liberalism will demand a terribly heavy price - more than we can possibly afford." (10)

In July 1907, the 25-year-old, Victor Grayson, a member of the ILP, stood as an independent "Labour and Socialist" candidate in a by-election at Colne Valley, without the endorsement of the Labour Party. He was elected on a left-wing socialist programme. The Daily Express reported: "The Red Flag waves over the Colne Valley... the fever of socialism has infected thousands of workers, who, judging from their merriment this evening, seem to think Mr Grayson's return means the millennium for them." (11)

Grayson refused to accept the discipline of the Parliamentary Party and sat as an independent member. In the House of Commons he attacked the gradualism of the Labour Party: "We are advised to advance imperceptibly - to go at a snail's pace - to take one step at a time. Surely there are some young enough to take two steps or more at a time." (12)

Grayson's impassioned zeal in pressing the claims of the unemployed soon involved him in angry scenes and he was eventually suspended from the House of Commons: "Grayson's activities were profoundly embarrassing to his colleagues, both because these activities were deemed to compromise the Labour Group's respectability, and also because they offered to the activists a striking contrast with the Group's own lack of impact." (13)

Over the next seven years Labour MPs gave its support to the Liberal government. The chief whip reported in 1910: Throughout this period I was always able to count on the support of the Labour Party." One Labour supporter asked: "How can the man in the street, whom we are continually importuning to forsake his old political associations, ever be led to believe that the Labour Party is in any way different to the Liberal Party, when this sort of thing is recurring." (14)

John Glasier argued that Ramsay MacDonald gave him the impression that he had lost faith in socialism and wanted to move the Labour Party to the right: "I noticed that Ramsay MacDonald in speaking of the appeal we should send out for capital used the word 'Democratic' rather than 'Labour' or 'Socialist' as describing the character of the newspaper. I rebulked him flatly and said we would have no 'democratic' paper but a Socialist and Labour one - boldly proclaimed. Why does MacDonald always seem to try and shirk the word Socialism except when he is writing critical books about the subject." (15)

Labour Party poster on the House of Lords (1910)
Labour Party poster on the House of Lords (1910)

At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, Charles Trevelyan, David Lloyd George, John Burns and John Morley, were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind. (16)

The anti-war newspaper, The Daily News, commented: "Among the many reports which are current as to Ministerial resignations there seems to be little doubt in regard to three. They are those of Lord Morley, Mr. John Burns, and Mr. Charles Trevelyan. There will be widespread sympathy with the action they have taken. Whether men approve of that action or not it is a pleasant thing in this dark moment to have this witness to the sense of honour and to the loyalty to conscience which it indicates... Mr. Trevelyan will find abundant work in keeping vital those ideals which are at the root of liberty and which are never so much in danger as in times of war and social disruption." (17)

The First World War

The Labour Party was completely divided by their approach to the First World War. Those who opposed the war, included Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, John Glasier, George Lansbury, Alfred Salter, William Mellor and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, J. R. Clynes, William Adamson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort.

On 5th August, 1914, the parliamentary party voted to support the government's request for war credits of £100,000,000. MacDonald immediately resigned the chairmanship. He wrote in his diary: "I saw it was no use remaining as the Party was divided and nothing but futility could result. The Chairmanship was impossible. The men were not working, were not pulling together, there was enough jealously to spoil good feeling. The Party was no party in reality. It was sad, but glad to get out of harness." (18)

Independent Labour Party certificate (1914)
Independent Labour Party certificate (1914)

Opponents of the war in the Labour Party joined forces with rebels in the Liberal Party to form the Union of Democratic Control. Members of the UDC agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (i) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (ii) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organization to help prevent future conflicts; (iii) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars. (19)

In the 1918 General Election all the leading members of the peace movement lost their seats in Parliament. This included Ramsay MacDonald, Charles Trevelyan, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. On the surface it seemed that the UDC had achieved very little. However, as A.J.P. Taylor has pointed out: "It launched a version of international relations which gradually won general acceptance far beyond the circle of those who knew they were being influenced by the UDC." (20)

In the 1922 General Election the Labour Party won 142 seats, making it the second largest political group in the House of Commons after the Conservative Party (347). David Marquand has pointed out that: "The new parliamentary Labour Party was a very different body from the old one. In 1918, 48 Labour M.P.s had been sponsored by trade unions, and only three by the ILP. Now about 100 members belonged to the ILP, while 32 had actually been sponsored by it, as against 85 who had been sponsored by trade unions.... In Parliament, it could present itself for the first time as the movement of opinion rather than of class." (21)

Labour Party poster for the 1923 General Election.
Labour Party poster for the 1923 General Election.

In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. "With a House of Commons constituted as this House is it is idle to talk of the imminent dangers of a Socialist regime." If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". (22)

On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. He later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. He added that he was having difficulties with his "extremists". He added "it had required all his influence and that of his moderate and immediate friends to prevent this taking place; they had got into the way of singing this song and it will be by degrees that he hopes to break down this habit." (23)

Philip Snowden recalled how he had a meeting with Ramsay MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas, Arthur Henderson and Sidney Webb about the strategy of the Labour government. "The conversation turned upon what we might be able to do in the first session. There would be two courses open to us. We might use the opportunity for a demonstration and introduce some bold Socialist measures, knowing, of course, that we should be defeated upon them. Then we could go to the country with this illustration of what we would do if we had a Socialist majority. This was of course which had been urged by the extreme wing of the party (ILP), but it was not a policy which commended itself to reasonable opinion. I urged very strongly to this meeting that we should not adopt an extreme policy but should confine our legislative proposals to measures that we were likely to be able to carry... We must show the country that we were not under the domination of the wild men." (24)

Labour Party poster for the 1924 General Election.
Labour Party poster for the 1924 General Election.

Only two Ministers, John Wheatley, at the Ministry of Health, and Fred Jowett, at the Office of Works, represented the left-wing of the party. According to Ralph Miliband: "Now, he (MacDonald) felt, was the Labour Party's great chance to dispel any suspicion that it was a party of revolt and to show the country how free a Labour Government was from any class bias." (25)

As Ian S. Wood has pointed out: "Wheatley's Housing (Financial Provisions) Act was the only major legislative achievement of the 1924 Labour government. Until its subsidy provisions were repealed by the National Government in 1934, a substantial proportion of all rented local authority housing in Britain was built under its terms and sixty years later there were still people in Scotland who spoke of Wheatley houses. The act was a complex one, bringing together trade unions, building firms, and local authorities in a scheme to tackle a housing shortage which was guaranteed central government funding provided that building standards set by the act were adhered to." (26)

Members of establishment were appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett has argued, the intelligence services were working closely with the Conservative Party to bring the Labour government down: "Although the short-lived Labour Government was in many respects unexceptionably moderate, and surprisingly successful in both economic and foreign policy, its opponents were not only waiting for it to make a fatal mistake, but also working to undermine it in any way possible." (27)

On 25th July 1924 John Ross Campbell published an "Open Letter to the Fighting Forces" in the Worker's Weekly newspaper that had been written anonymously by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The article called on soldiers to "let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers". Sir Patrick Hastings, the Attorney General, initially advised Ramsay MacDonald, to prosecute Campbell under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797. However, Hastings later changed his mind because he was "a man of otherwise excellent character with a fine war record." The opposition parties accused the minority Labour government of being under the influence of the CPGB. (28)

In September 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told Ramsay MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine.

While this was going on MacDonald faced a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons over the way he had dealt with the John Ross Campbell case. In the debate that took place on 8th October, MacDonald gave an uninspiring account of events and when he lost the motion by 304 to 191 votes, he decided to resign and a general election was announced for Wednesday, 29th October, 1924.

It was initially agreed that the Zinoviev Letter should be kept secret. However, just before the election, someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. The real losers in the election were the Liberals who now only had 42 MPs. Labour actually gained 1.1 million votes though they lost forty seats, falling to 151. "Labour had established itself, not a party of real socialism (which at that time would not have attracted many millions of votes) but as the credible party to form His Majesty's Opposition". (29)

Ramsay MacDonald suggested he had been a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (30)

After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), it was clear that Major George Joseph Ball (1885-1961), a MI5 officer, played an important role in leaking it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. (31)

Of the 151 MPs, 114 were members of the ILP. H. N. Brailsford, became the new editor of the the ILP newspaper, the New Leader (the former Labour Leader). As chairman of the party, Clifford Allen helped to formulate ILP policy with pamphlets such as Putting Socialism Into Practice (1924), The ILP and Revolution (1925) and Socialism in Our Time (1926).

In opposition the ILP devoted much effort to "formulate policies which would, in its view, be appropriate to a movement which was theoretically pledged to the establishment of a socialist society in Britain". It also attempted to persuade the Labour Party "to incorporate these policies in its own programme" and "to compel the Labour leadership to act upon these policies". (32)

In 1925 James Maxton led the "Socialism in Our Time" campaign and the following year was elected as leader of the ILP. It was reported that by 1927 the ILP became a growing influence in the Labour Party. It was claimed, with some justification, "a very marked growth of the organized left-wing opposition within the British Labour Party... which is causing the Right-Wing Labour bureaucracy more and more anxiety and alarm". A conference was held in September of that year where 54 local branches of the Labour Party were represented. (33)

Ramsay MacDonald continued with his policy of presenting the Labour Party as a moderate force in politics and refused to support the 1926 General Strike. MacDonald argued that strikes should not be used as a political weapon and that the best way to obtain social reform was through parliamentary elections. He was especially critical of A. J. Cook. He wrote in his diary: "It really looks tonight as though there was to be a General Strike to save Mr. Cook's face... The election of this fool as miners' secretary looks as though it would be the most calamitous thing that ever happened to the T.U. movement." (34)

James Maxton by John Lavery
James Maxton by John Lavery

At the 1928 Annual Conference, James Maxton and Arthur J. Cook, published a manifesto that complained that "in recent times" there had been "a serious departure from the principles and policy which animated the founders". The authors went on to argue: "As a result of the new conception that Socialism and Capitalism should sink their differences, much of the energy which should be expended in fighting Capitalism is now expanded in crushing everybody who dares to remain true to the ideals of the Movement." (35)

Armed with the crushing power of the trade union vote, the Labour leadership was able to defeat the policies proposed by the ILP. Philip Snowden, who had left the ILP in 1927, proposed the ILP disbandment. Clifford Allen, one of MacDonald's close advisers, argued that this would be a mistake as "there was a necessity for a Left Wing organization in the larger Party; otherwise there would be a tendency of certain elements to drift towards the Communist Party". (36)

By 1928 Ramsay MacDonald was 62 years old. He wrote in his diary: "How tired I am. My brain is fagged, work is difficult, and there is a darkness on the face of the land. I am ashamed of some speeches I have made, but what can I do? I have no time to prepare anything. It looks as though it will be harder to make my necessary income this year. I wonder how this problem of an income for political Labour leaders with no, or small, independent means is to be solved. No one seems to understand it. To be the paid servant of the State is objectionable; to begin making an income on Friday afternoon and going hard at it till Sunday night, taking meetings in the interval, is too wearing for human flesh and blood. On the other hand, to live on £400 a year is impossible. If it killed one in a clean, efficient business-like way why should one object, but it cripples and tortures first by lowering the quality of work done and then by pushing one into long months of slowly ebbing vitality and mental paralysis." (37)

MacDonald's moderate image was popular with the voters and he was expected to lead his party to victory in the 1929 General Election. However, some thought that the party needed to promise more dramatic reform. Richard Tawney sent a letter to the leaders of the party: "If the Labour Election Programme is to be of any use it must have something concrete and definite about unemployment... What is required is a definite statement that (a) Labour Government will initiate productive work on a larger scale, and will raise a loan for the purpose. (b) That it will maintain from national funds all men not absorbed in such work." MacDonald refused to be persuaded by Tawney's ideas and rejected the idea that unemployment could be cured by public works.

During the election campaign, David Lloyd George, the leader of the Liberal Party, published a pamphlet, We Can Conquer Unemployment, where he proposed a government scheme where 350,000 men were to be employed on road-building, 60,000 on housing, 60,000 on telephone development and 62,000 on electrical development. The coast would be £250 million, and the money would be raised by loan. John Maynard Keynes, the country's leading economist, also published a pamphlet supporting Lloyd George's scheme. (38)

In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,664,000 votes, the Labour Party 8,360,000 and the Liberals 5,300,000. However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party won 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. MacDonald became Prime Minister again, but as before, he still had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power.

MacDonald refused to appoint left-wing members of his party to his cabinet. This included John Wheatley who had been a great success as housing minister in the 1924 government. Philip Snowden later recalled: "During the time we had been in Opposition (1925-29), Wheatley had dissociated himself from his former Cabinet colleagues, and had gone to the back benches into the company of the Clydesiders. In the country, too, he had made speeches attacking his late colleagues. MacDonald was strongly opposed to offering him a post in the new Government. Wheatley had deserted us and insulted us, and MacDonald thought the country would be shocked if he were included in the Cabinet, and it would be taken as evidence of rebel influence."

However, Arthur Henderson, disagreed with MacDonald. So did Snowden, who argued: "Arthur Henderson took the view, and I was inclined to agree with him, that it might be better to have him inside than outside. I took this view from my experience of him as a Minister. he was a man who, when free from the responsibility of office, would make extreme speeches; but as a Minister I had always found him to be reasonable and practical." (39)

In March 1931 MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problems. The committee included two members that had been nominated from the three main political parties. At the same time, John Maynard Keynes, the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council, published his report on the causes and remedies for the depression. This included an increase in public spending and by curtailing British investment overseas.

Philip Snowden rejected these ideas and this was followed by the resignation of Charles Trevelyan, the Minister of Education. In a letter to the prime minister he explained his actions: "For some time I have realized that I am very much out of sympathy with the general method of Government policy. In the present disastrous condition of trade it seems to me that the crisis requires big Socialist measures. We ought to be demonstrating to the country the alternatives to economy and protection. Our value as a Government today should be to make people realize that Socialism is that alternative." (40)

Trevelyan told a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that the main reason he had resigned: "I have for some time been painfully aware that I am utterly dissatisfied with the main strategy of the leaders of the party. But I thought it my duty to hold on as long as I had a definite job in trying to pass the Education Bill. I never expected a complete breakthrough to Socialism in this Parliament. But I did expect it to prepare the way by a Government which in spirit and vigour made such a contrast with the Tories and Liberals that we should be sure of conclusive victory next time."

He attacked the government for refusing to introduce socialist measures to deal with the economic crisis. He was also a supporter of the economist John Maynard Keynes: "Now we are plunged into an exampled trade depression and suffering the appalling record of unemployment. It is a crisis almost as terrible as war. The people are in just the mood to accept a new and bold attempt to deal with radical evils. But all we have got is a declaration of economy from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We apparently have opted, almost without discussion, the policy of economy. It implies a faith, a faith that reduction of expenditure is the way to salvation. No comrades. It is not good enough for a Socialist party to meet this crisis with economy. The very root of our faith is the prosperity comes from the high spending power of the people, and that public expenditure on the social services is always remunerative." (41)

On 24th August 1931, MacDonald formed a National Government. Only three members of the Labour administration, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the government. Other appointments included Stanley Baldwin (Lord President of the Council), Neville Chamberlain (Health), Samuel Hoare (Secretary of State for India), Herbert Samuel (Home Office), Philip Cunliffe-Lister (Board of Trade) and Lord Reading (Foreign Office).

On 8th September 1931, the National Government's programme of £70 million economy programme was debated in the House of Commons. This included a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were "not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government". In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249, but only 12 Labour M.P.s voted for the measures. (42)

The cuts in public expenditure did not satisfy the markets. The withdrawals of gold and foreign exchange continued. On September 16th, the Bank of England lost £5 million; on the 17th, £10 million; and on the 18th, nearly £18 million. On the 20th September, the Cabinet agreed to leave the Gold Standard, something that John Maynard Keynes had advised the government to do on 5th August.

On 26th September, the Labour Party National Executive decided to expel all members of the National Government including Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey. As David Marquand has pointed out: "In the circumstances, its decision was understandable, perhaps inevitable. The Labour movement had been built on the trade-union ethic of loyalty to majority decisions. MacDonald had defied that ethic; to many Labour activists, he was now a kind of political blackleg, who deserved to be treated accordingly." (43)

The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Several leading Labour figures, including Charles Trevelyan, Arthur Henderson, John R. Clynes, Arthur Greenwood, Jennie Lee, Herbert Morrison, Emanuel Shinwell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Hugh Dalton, Susan Lawrence, William Wedgwood Benn, and Margaret Bondfield lost their seats.

The Socialist League

After the election most members of the Labour Party rejected the gradualist doctrines of the MacDonald leadership. In the 1920s MacDonald had argued that socialism "would evolve from capitalism as the oak from the acorn". This view was now totally discredited. Capitalism had plunged the working class into mass unemployment and the MacDonald government had demanded cuts in the standard of living of workers. Most members, including those on the right of the party, had concluded that henceforth the only way forward was the "decisive transformation to socialism". (44)

The Independent Labour Party, the main left-wing pressure group in the Labour Party, decided to disaffiliate from the Party. It was replaced by another left-wing pressure group, the Socialist League. Members included G.D.H. Cole, William Mellor, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. J. T. Murphy became its secretary. Murphy saw the Socialist League as "the organization of revolutionary socialists who are an integral part of the Labour movement for the purpose of winning it completely for revolutionary socialism". (45)

George Lansbury, the new left-wing leader of the Labour Party, was sympathetic to the ideas of the Socialist League and it was no surprise that at the 1932 Labour Conference agreed that once in power they would take all banks into public ownership on the grounds that control of them would be essential for real socialist planning. Another successful Socialist League resolution laid down "that the leaders of the next Labour Government and the Parliamentary Labour Party be instructed by the National Conference that, on assuming office... definite Socialist legislation must be immediately promulgated... we must have Socialism in deed as well as in words". (46)

A. J. A. Morris, pointed out that the wealthy Charles Trevelyan, the first of MacDonald's ministers to resign over his right-wing policies, helped to fund the group. "Trevelyan... encouraged the Socialist League, gave help both political and material to a number of aspiring and established left-wingers, and seemed quite convinced that the Labour Party was at last committed to socialism. There was a brief moment of personal triumph at the annual party conference in 1933. He successfully introduced a resolution that, if there were even a threat of war, the Labour Party would call a general strike." (47)

Gilbert Mitchison, a member of the Socialist League, published a much-discussed book, The First Workers' Government (1934), advocating an enabling act under which a future Labour government would nationalize most of the economy and redistribute wealth, bringing in socialism almost overnight. Clement Attlee, another member of the Socialist League, wrote at this time: "The moment to strike is the moment of taking power when the Government is freshly elected and assured of its support. The blow struck must be a fatal one and not merely designed to wound and to turn a sullen and obstructive opponent into an active and deadly enemy." (48)

In May 1936, the Left Book Club was formed. It's monthly offerings, selected by Victor Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski, became highly successful. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of fascism in Britain. Gollancz announced: "The aim of the Left Book Club is a simple one. It is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace and against fascism, by giving, to all who are willing to take part in that struggle, such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency." (49)

As Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author of Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987), pointed out: "They were a formidable trio: Laski the academic theoretician; Strachey the gifted popularizer; and Victor the inspired publicist. All three had known a lifelong passion for politics and all had swung violently left in the early 1930s. Only Victor did not describe himself as completely Marxist, though he was objectively indistinguishable from the real article." (50)

Within a short period the Left Book Club achieved a membership of nearly 60,000 and had some 1,200 local discussion groups linked by a monthly bulletin, Left News. "In addition, there were functional groups for scientists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, poets, writers, artists, musicians and actors; and the Club was also responsible for the arrangement of rallies, meetings, lectures, weekend and vacation schools." (51)

Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "The growth of the Club was partly spontaneous, partly a consequence of imaginative organization From the start, giant Club rallies were held in large halls all over the country. In attendance and in drama, the Club's biggest meetings outdid any organized by the Labour Party. People came to a Club rally as to a revivalist meeting, to hear the best orators of the far left - Laski, Strachey, Pollitt, Gallacher, Ellen Wilkinson, Pritt, Bevan, Strauss, Cripps, plus the occasional non-socialist, such as the Liberal, Richard Acland." (52)

Clement Attlee replaced George Lansbury as leader of the Labour Party. Attlee now left the Socialist League and began to move the party to the right. In 1936 Hugh Dalton became Chairman of the Labour Party National Executive, and Ernest Bevin, another former member of the League, became Chairman of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress. They were now in a position to oppose left-wing policies that were favoured by its membership. (53)

Attlee first decided to tackle the Labour League of Youth, who he believed was under the control of the Socialist League. In an investigation carried out in 1936 it claimed that "the real object of the League is to enroll large numbers of young people, and by a social life of its own, provide opportunities for young people to study Party Policy and to give loyal support to the Party of which they are members." The Executive decided to remove the right of the Labour League of Youth to be involved in policy decisions. (54)

On 27th January, 1937, the Labour Party decided to disaffiliate the Socialist League. They also began considering expelling members of the League. G.D.H. Cole and George Lansbury responded by urging the party not to start a "heresy hunt". Arthur Greenwood was one of those who argued that the rebel leader, Stafford Cripps, should be immediately expelled. Cripps was expelled by the National Executive Committee by eighteen to one. He was followed by Charles Trevelyan, Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss in February. On 24th March, 1937, the National Executive Committee declared that members of the Socialist League would be ineligible for Labour Party membership from 1st June. Over the next few weeks membership fell from 3,000 to 1,600. In May, G.D.H. Cole and other leading members decided to dissolve the Socialist League. (55)


(1) Neil Kinnock, The Guardian (8th July 2016)

(2) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 375

(3) Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (1965) page 212

(4) The Clarion (10th March, 1900)

(5) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 20

(6) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) page 31

(7) Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (1965) page 220

(8) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 14

(9) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 71

(10) Philip Poirier, The Advent of the Labour Party (1958) page 145

(11) Daily Express (20th July, 1907)

(12) Reg Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975) page 48

(13) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 14

(14) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 43

(15) Bruce Glasier, diary entry (June 1911)

(16) A. J. A. Morris, Charles Trevelyan : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) The Daily News (5th August, 1914)

(18) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (5th August, 1914)

(19) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 103

(20) A.J.P. Taylor, The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy (1957) page 132

(21) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) The Times (19th December, 1923)

(23) Harold Nicholson, King George Fifth: His Life and Reign (1952) page 384

(24) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934) pages 595-596

(25) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 25

(26) Ian S. Wood, John Wheatley: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2016)

(27) Gill Bennett, Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence (2009) page 80

(28) Keith Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010) page 216

(29) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 103

(30) Ramsay MacDonald, speech (24th October, 1924)

(31) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) pages 147-152

(32) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 152

(33) Joseph Redman, The Communist Party and the Labour Left (1957) pages 8-10

(34) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (2nd May, 1926)

(35) John McNair, James Maxton: The Beloved Rebel (1955) pages 171-172

(36) Clifford Allen, minutes of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party (23rd May, 1925)

(37) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (20th January, 1928)

(38) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) page 64

(39) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934) page 759

(40) Charles Trevelyan, letter of resignation to Ramsay MacDonald (19th February, 1931)

(41) Charles Trevelyan, speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party (19th February, 1931)

(42) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) page 72

(43) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(44) Paul Addison, The Road to 1945 (1975) page 48

(45) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977) page 52

(46) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 170

(47) A. J. A. Morris, Charles Trevelyan : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(48) Paul Addison, The Road to 1945 (1975) page 48

(49) Victor Gollancz, brochure for Left Book Club (February, 1936)

(50) Ruth Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987) page 229

(51) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 243

(52) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977) page 155

(53) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) page 76

(54) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 245

(55) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 255

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