The Labour Party: the Lansbury lessons

Check the scene out: the Labour Party, reeling from a crushing election defeat, chooses an idealistic, peace-loving left-winger as its leader, who frequently comes into conflict with his party’s grandees who fear that the new leader is adversely affecting their popularity and electability.

No, this is not Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, but George Lansbury in 1935. For it is exactly eighty years since Clement Attlee succeeded Lansbury as Labour leader, following a stormy power struggle among the party’s higher echelons in the wake of a bruising party conference. Six weeks into Corbyn’s becoming leader, at a time when the example of Michael Foot is frequently mentioned in the media, it is worth stopping to consider some other lessons, further back in the Party’s past.

George Lansbury (1859-1940), Labour leader 1932-5
George Lansbury (1859-1940), Labour leader 1932-5

George Lansbury, lauded in his time as a decent and principled man who could not have gone into politics for anything other than altruistic reasons, had at the time of his ouster lasted less than three years as Leader of the Opposition. In his defence, he had had to handle an unenviable inheritance – namely, the 1931 general election, the worst electoral performance in Labour’s history, in which their representation in the Commons plummeted from 289 seats to 52.

In the weeks leading up to this electoral disaster, the then Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, taking advice from most of the top bankers and economists of the day, urged his cabinet to swallow some tough medicine in order to prevent a run on sterling. The medicine in question involved agreeing to some cuts in benefits, but nearly half of MacDonald’s cabinet refused to agree to a package that would involve penalising people who were already in desperate personal straits.

With his cabinet split right down the middle, MacDonald prepared to submit the government’s resignation to King George V and get ready for a general election. The expected general election never took place – at least, not on conventional party lines. Instead, on the King’s urging (which raises important questions as to how impartial the monarch really is in British politics), MacDonald went behind his colleagues’ back and formed a coalition (the official, face-saving term was the National Government) with the Tories and Liberals. In the ensuing rout at the election, the coalition romped home with a record-shattering Commons majority of nearly 500, and the only Labour cabinet member who did not lose his seat was Lansbury (and he had voted against MacDonald’s proposed cuts).

Whoever had succeeded to the Labour leadership, then, would have faced the monumental task of picking the Party back up after such a colossal defeat. At least Labour could count some notable names who had survived the ’31 calamity. There was Attlee, of course, returned as the member for Stepney Limehouse. There was the radical ex-miner as MP for Ebbw Vale, the future NHS founder Aneurin Bevan. Representing Glasgow Bridgetown was the former Clydeside shop steward Jimmy Maxton, while East Bristol had as its MP the future Chancellor Stafford Cripps. Finally, returning as MP for Broxtowe was the unfortunately named Mr Seymour Cocks (I can only assume that it was a much more innocent age…).

Many contemporaries as well as subsequent historians agreed that Lansbury was a talented organiser, an inspiring and passionate campaigner, and an all-round decent type, and his diligence and leadership were just the tonic that the Labour Party needed after their heavy election defeat. Lansbury certainly did his best to ensure that the coalition government, however massive its electoral mandate, would not have anything like an easy ride in Parliament. It was in such circumstances that the parliamentary talents of Attlee, Bevan and Cripps were able to flourish. For his part, Attlee freely acknowledged his predecessor’s skills, recalling in his 1954 autobiography, “As It Happened”:

A leading Conservative once replied to a Labour Member who said that he thought George Lansbury was one of the best men he had ever known – “The best! Is that all? He’s the ablest Opposition Leader that I have ever known.” It was, of course, a great source of strength to him that he commanded the personal affection of his followers. He had also a wise tolerance – an attribute which is not so common in the enthusiast.

Over the three years of Lansbury’s leadership, Labour regained much of its standing surprisingly quickly, recording significant wins in local council elections and by-elections, most famously with a 32 per cent swing in the East Fulham by-election of 1933.

It was foreign, rather than domestic, policy that was to be Lansbury’s undoing. Put simply, as a Christian socialist he despised fascism, but as a pacifist too he was unwilling to support the idea of doing anything concrete about the crimes of fascism. The best he could do was utter a handful of pious platitudes, and ultimately such platitudes would wear on the eyes and ears of supporters as well as opponents. One of his statements on how to handle the aggression of dictators deserves to be quoted above all, as an example of how to sound extreme even to the most redoubtable of peace campaigners:

I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army, and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war, and say to the world, “Do your worst!”

The problem was that the dictators of the time simply did not respect or respond to mere appeals for peace, even if they were made by a coalition of countries. The Japanese army started the trend with an invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The League of Nations protested this act of aggression, but otherwise did little else – though even that act prompted the Japanese government to walk out of the League. Lansbury’s contributions to the debate over what to do about this crisis included:

There need not be war. The European powers, with the USA, have only got to make it plain that they will boycott Japan unless it acts reasonably and Japan will give way.

The League’s pathetic response to the Manchurian war was not lost on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who on 3 October 1935 ordered an invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), as part of his drive to create a new Roman empire. While few in western Europe were in the mood to go to war against the Italians, there was a strong argument in favour of a co-ordinated economic embargo, to include oil supplies (which, Mussolini later privately admitted, would have forced him to withdraw from Abyssinia), but Lansbury was opposed even to that kind of concerted action, at one point commenting:

I personally cannot see the difference between mass murder organised by the League of Nations, or mass murder organised between individual states.

This was the final straw for many in the Labour Party, growing numbers of whose members were coming round to the idea of not ruling out force in all circumstances when faced with dictatorial aggression. A revolt at that autumn’s party conference, spearheaded by the trade unions, led to Lansbury quitting the leadership on 8 October, with his chief critic Ernest Bevin telling him:

It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be taking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what you ought to do with it.

What lessons, though, does the Lansbury era offer us today? However low they may register on the list of most voters’ concerns, foreign affairs, and a capable grasp thereof, do matter in any political career. Corbyn has certainly done himself and his party few favours, if any, by his insistence that he would never press the nuclear button even if his cabinet refused to embrace unilateralism. It remains debatable whether the world today is any more dangerous than it was in the early 1930s, but it would be naive at best to imagine that leaders like ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin would ever respect any would-be head of a Western government who wore their pacifist beliefs on their sleeve.

Any Leader of the Opposition aspiring to Prime Minister has to have a clear vision for government. This was arguably easier in the early 1930s, when the differences between the political parties were much starker, and politicians then were less afraid of airing their convictions. Moreover, they faced the scrutiny of a comparatively much less vicious and more deferential press and media. At the time of this year’s leadership election, the question ‘What is the Labour Party for?’ was frequently asked, and it was surely in reaction to the Party having since the 1990s effectively swapped vision and conviction for focus-group fact-finding that Corbyn was elected. It cannot have been just the newly joined members who had had enough of Labour having virtually styled itself since the Blair years as the Slightly Less Conservative than the Conservatives Party. Nonetheless, despite their rejection by the Party membership, the New Labour apparatchiks (who most definitely have not gone away, you know) are watching Corbyn like a hawk. They know and understand the final lesson of the Lansbury years: that elections matter, and better electoral results are the key barometer for any new leader. If in the spring Corbyn cannot translate his style and principles into improved results for Labour in the nation’s council chambers then he will be lucky to last even half as long as Lansbury did.