Skip to Content

Book Reviews: 'Labour in Crisis - The Second Labour Government, 1929-31', & 'Explaining Labour's Landslide'

The futility of reformism

'Labour in Crisis - The Second Labour Government, 1929-31'. By Neil Riddell. (Manchester University Press)

The Labour Party, they used to say, was a broad church. Tony Blair, though he has sanctimoniousness in buckets, has spent much of the last five years trying to narrow it down a little. But he has not always found this easy. The strength of Riddell's book is to show clearly just how much of a compromise the Labour Party always was.

First the facts of the second Labour government. It was elected as a minority in 1929 under the clouds of the impending crash. It imploded in 1931 amid squabbles over a cut in the dole, and after the desertion of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to form the National Government (a Tory-dominated coalition).

This much is well known. What Riddell does that is new is to trace relationships between different sections of the Labour movement (the part, that is, which constituted the Labour Party) as capitalism's latest crisis left the politicians gasping. Except "relationships" isn't always the right word. "Hatreds" might sometimes be better. Senior trade unionists (who Sidney Webb called "pigs") and politicians came close to blows at least once. A broad church maybe, but saintly it was not.

What were the aims of different parts of the movement, which Riddell maintains never could have been reconciled? The TUC wanted a government answerable to them, committed to removing the anti-union laws passed after the general strike. MacDonald, of course, had no intention of giving it them.

Local Labour parties with union backing agreed with the TUC. The rest, always broke because of union resistance to pooled funds, just tried to stay afloat. Union-sponsored MPs generally went along with the TUC line too. Other MPs split, some supporting the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in its quest for "a living wage". This was proposed first as a remedy for under-consumption, later as a "transitional demand" by which capitalism would be bankrupted. Some for a while were sympathetic to Mosley. Most could only hope that their seats would be safe when the fiasco ended.

Riddell devotes much space to what he calls "the intellectuals". Looking at what they supported, now and later, this is surely to flatter them. Generally, they plumped for some sort of nationalisation as the way ahead.

Different again was MacDonald himself, a keen proponent of "the inevitability of gradualness". He believed that meaningful change could come about through piecemeal reforms of capitalism. Snowden, his chancellor, was firmly committed to balanced budgets, free trade and the gold standard. Both craved respectability. (Sound familiar, anyone?).

No wonder R. H. Tawney could call their 1929 manifesto "a glittering forest of Christmas trees, with presents for everyone". And it was undeliverable. As for the alternative, propagated in the pages of this paper then as now, there was not a whisper from anyone.

Disappointments were inevitable, and MacDonald's non-spin doctored public relations only made things worse for him. What really knocked the apple from the tree though was capitalism's slump. When the government did crash, it was spectacular.

The movement, of course, resolved that such a thing must never happen again. Webb went off to look for a different dream, and found it in the USSR. (Soviet Communism: a new civilisation? was published in 1935, but reprinted two years later without the question mark). Generally, the party took up a different brand of reformism in the 1930s and 1940s, looking ever more to nationalisation, finance controls and management by "experts" working through a benign state. "Gradualism" was too slow; and the next Labour government was quicker off the mark.

But what difference would it make? It wasn't just Macdonald's leadership which was found wanting in 1931. It was the whole idea that capitalism could be reformed into something kindly and user-friendly. It couldn't and it can't. Blair is the face of a Labour Party that accepts this basic truth.

T. CROBY

************************************************************

Tory chickens come home to roost

'Explaining Labour's Landslide'. By Robert Worcester & Roger Mortimore. (Politico's)

Opinion polling has been a feature of British political life since 1938. (57 percent of people were satisfied with Neville Chamberlain's performance as Prime Minister). By the last general election, however, the pollsters were on trial as never before. They had, horror of horrors, got the result of the 1992 election wrong.

In the end, their predictions of Labour's victory in May 1997 turned out to be creditably close to the mark. The Tories lost 177 seats. Labour won its highest ever number of MPs, and had a majority of 179. Worcester, who founded the MORI agency in 1969 and has been closely involved with political polling ever since, and Mortimore tell the story of that election through the data the polls provided.

The Tories were doomed long before the campaign began, they argue, because of problems almost entirely of their own making. To any socialist, this is deeply uninteresting stuff. The high point of this part of the book, as it was of the campaign, is the man the Tories paid to dress up as a chicken and follow Blair around. Which of them talked more sense is still hotly debated.

And yet, this is not a boring book. It argues strongly from a position of hard facts supplied by the polls that bias in the press does swing votes. During the 1979 election, two thirds of Sun readers didn't know its political allegiance. (Its front page on polling day consisted of two words: "VOTE TORY"). By 1997, "the print media did . . . have significant influence on the voting behaviour of their readers". In this case at least, greater political awareness seems to be a handicap.

The authors are suitably cutting about the cynical and meaningless astrological "predictions" spouted by several papers. The Express, for example, claimed that "a Tory victory is written in the stars . . . Tony Blair is doomed due to the poor positioning of something called the planet Rahu". Shelley von Strunckel in the Evening Standard was cleverer, taking a whole page to hint at a hung parliament without actually committing herself to anything at all. This under the headline "Forget polls, the result is in the stars".

Most interesting for socialists though, is the section What is public opinion? Clearly for anyone concerned to see a huge shift in human consciousness, this is an important area. The book gives much food for thought. "Public opinion", it maintains, comprises three things. There are "opinions: the ripples on the surface of the public's consciousness, shallow and easily changed; attitudes: the currents below the surface . . . and values: the deep tides of public mood, slow to change, but powerful". Political convictions generally (we are told) come from this third element. To dump our upbringing for capitalism frequently entails a shift in these deep values. It is possible, as the existence of the membership of the World Socialist Movement proves. But it may not always be easy.

The book of course was not written to give us ideas about how to speed up this process of human change. But what is the alternative? A man dressed as a chicken, pecking at the heels of another man who would soon be sending bombers round the world to serve British capital's interests. Pathetic, maybe; but nine out of ten people think it was childish too—the chicken bit, at least.

T. CROBY