Labour Party Success
Since the start of the of the 20th century the Labour Party had grown from being an electoral ally of the Liberal Party to the second largest party in the British political system during the interwar period. During this time the party formed two governments under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald but the formation of each is often questioned by historians due to the circumstances which led to the election. However this is not the only issue debated by historians, each government was short-lived which has led to queries about which, out of the elections or the premature falls of the Labour governments, was more suprising.
The formation of the Labour Government in 1924 had looked a distant possibility at the start of the year but a number of factors contributed to their formation and many believe this was suprising. In 1924 Baldwin had recently taken over the leadership of the Conservative Party after fighting off competition from Lord Curzon, following the retirement of Bonar Law due to his deteriorating health. After taking over the leadership of the Conservative Party he sought to gain a mandate to continue from the newly extended electorate who Baldwin believed needed to be able to trust their leaders.
The issue on which to call the election on however was tariff reform, one of the most contentious issues in British political history and had been a contributing factor to the conservative decline at the turn of the century. The results of the election subsequently allowed Labour the chance to form a government, the conservatives lost seats and the liberals, despite being united in defence of free trade, were not the party they had been before the outbreak of war. The outcome was a ‘Hung Parliament’ with Labour taking on a minority administration.
This formation of the government in 1924, has often been looked upon as suprising by historians, due to the rash actions of Baldwin in calling an election over such a divisive and controversial issue. This seemingly unnecessary action however, may not have come about had Lord Curzon beaten Baldwin in the leadership race. It is therefore a great surprise that Labour gained the opportunity to form a government in 1924, as the Conservatives seemed to be heading a stable administration and it may be said that Baldwin sacrificed the party’s dominance to achieve a mandate to continue in power.
The chance for Labour to form a government in 1924 was slightly weakened by the fact that they only held a minority administration. Along with this immediate weakness were the existence of many preconceptions that people held of a Labour administration due to Conservative campaigning and the developments in Russia after the end of the war. Non-Labour supporter’s belived that a left-wing administration would disband the armed forces, liquidate the empire, wage war on the rich and alter British life beyond all recognition.
It may be possible to say therefore that before the government even took power, Labour was destined to serve a short time in power due to the beliefs which the electorate held. However, it may be said that these beliefs were misplaced as Ramsay MacDonald the leader of the Labour Party has little sympathy with the left-wing of the party and wanted to ensure Labour became a respectable party that was fit to rule. The fact that the public held misleading views about Labour meant that following a moderate course was the only way to change the minds of people.
This was made easier by the difficult conditions which existed in 1924 as without a majority the leaders of Labour would be able to resist left-wing demands. The administration though was similar to the preceding ones of the Liberals and the Conservatives as the empire remained safe and the army was even increased. Some social reforms were introduced but ultimately no serious attempt was made to tackle unemployment and it is even possible to say that industrial relations were poor. The downfall of the Government was perhaps more expected than its election.
The Campbell Case involved the withdrawal of a lawsuit against J. R Campbell which in the eyes of the Conservatives was politically motivated. After the Liberal leader Asquith called for an enquiry, MacDonald announced the government’s intention to resign if MP’s voted in favor of an enquiry. The result was damning for the Labour administration and many suggested that the government had committed suicide; Asquith went on to say that he had ‘never known a government which had so wantonly and unnecessarily committed suicide’.
In light of this evidence it is possible to say that the fall of Labour was suprising, surviving the preconceptions of the public which existed in 1924 was an achievement in itself and the moderate course which it followed meant it was unlikely to attract much criticism for being too socialist. It can therefore be suggested that the Labour government committed suicide and it can be seen as suprising that it fell so prematurely. After an absence from power of five years, the 1929 election offered a new opportunity for Labour to form an administration.
The continuation of Liberal decline in the post-war period seemed to have been halted when Lloyd-George took over from Asquith and the party adopted a new economic policy. This economic radicalism was influenced by Maynard-Keynes but ultimately the public believed that the promises made were too good to be true and that Lloyd-George’s promises would be left unfulfilled like the ones made in 1918. This confirmation of Liberal decline meant that Labour was now the alternative to the Conservatives and made the possibility of a left-wing administration more realistic.
The build up to the election saw the Conservatives tread a safe path and adopt the slogan, ‘Safety First’. Thought to be a low risk strategy, the tactic ultimately led to a poor election showing as the lack of positive ideas and failure to deal with unemployment in the previous five years meant the electorate were unimpressed, leading to the election of a Labour government. The election of Labour in 1929 was less suprising due to the failure of the Conservatives to campaign effectively and deal with the issues arising in their previous administration.
By this time the liberals had also lost their previous political force and allowed Labour to become a more realistic alternative to the Conservatives. This combination of factors led to the election of Labour becoming less suprising. The result of the 1929 election led to Labour gaining power for the second time. In a period dominated by the world financial crisis the administration faced the growing problem of unemployment and the falling value of British exports.
Evidence of these problems growing were the expenditure on unemployment benefits which grew from i?? 12 million in 1929 to i?? 125 in 1931. It is perhaps fair to say that any government in power would have struggled to cope with the problems that existed. Such great problems inevitably caused division within the party and one of the main protagonists was Oswald Mosley who called for Keynesian ideas such as protective tariffs, government direction of industry and increased allowances to boost domestic consumption.
On the other hand MacDonald and his chancellor Snowden believed that cuts would help to ease the economic pressure. In hindsight can be said that this course was a triumph of political stability over economic radicalism and that in order to continue on as moderate course MacDonald sacrificed the government’s longevity in this term to improve the party’s future. As the crisis deepened and no solution was apparent the strain on the government grew.
A 15 man committee was appointed to offer alternative solutions to those of the treasury but the rejection of Mosley and his proposals made it politically impossible to accept the measures. The worsening situation led to a royal commission on unemployment benefits which reported than a 30% cut was required whereas the May report called for a 20% reduction. This showed the differences in opinion that existed in Britain and the situation was worsened by a ‘run on the pound’ which was seen by foreign investors as necessary due to Britain’s impending bankruptcy.
The situation would most likely have led to the fall of any government and as disagreement continued to occur over whether to make cuts or to stimulate spending; MacDonald continued to support his chancellor and persisted in his aim to achieve i?? 75 million cuts. This was put a vote in the cabinet but with a vote split at 11-9 in became apparent that the government could not go on. The economic blizzard that occurred after1929 would have taken a considerable effort by any government to survive and the failure of American and German administrations to deal with the economic pressures showed the magnitude of the situation.
It is perhaps easy to conclude therefore that the fall of Labour in 1931 was not suprsising due to the conditions which prevailed in the 1930’s and in only their second term in power the relatively inexperienced Labour government was still focused on political stability rather than radical economic measures. The first two Labour governments were both relatively short-lived and weakened by previous administrations and preconceptions. The belief of a left-wing takeover similar to that in Russia played on the mind of the public and the gold standard introduced by Churchill helped to cut short the second term.
Ultimately the fact Labour governments were formed at all was more suprising than the fact they were short-lived as the conditions which met both administrations were hardly favourable to a government with little experience and therefore a relatively quick fall may have seemed inevitable. However, the elections of each government is suprising as in 1924 Baldwin seemed to gift Labour the chance to form a government due to his desire for a personal mandate and in 1929 his unambitious and low risk policies seemed to be unconvincing to an electorate who wanted action over unemployment.
It may have been said that the foundation built over the five years of Conservative administration would have led a greater desire to tackle problems with increased radicalism and the absence of such a policy may be suprising to historians. In summary the Labour governments were formed due to Conservative self destruction and the party itself may have been surprised at its new found opportunity.