Labour in the Thirties

The Labour Party and the trade unions remained defiant in the face of the 1931 general election defeat. The 1932 Annual Conference of the Party was told that "when the dust of battle had settled, an army of nearly 7 million men and women had rallied with unflinching loyalty and resolute determination to withstand the supreme attack of the combined forces of reaction…Labour refused to yield and at the end remained on the battleground a united formidable compact force that was the admiration of the working class movements of all countries. This augurs well for the future."

Labour was able to withstand the betrayal of Ramsay Macdonald and the victory of the National government because it had a programme, a vision of socialism and because it was rooted in the working class. Although the Labour Party was not to win a general election victory for over a decade, the Party's organisation was not affected at grassroots level. It made significant gains in the 1930s in local government and the membership continued to grow. 'The trade unions, an integral part of the Party, also made progress in the latter half of the 1930s. In 1938 Labour Party annual conference rejected an appeal to form a Popular Front type alliance, because in the words of the author of the annual conference report "members of the Party should withhold sup- port for movements, which are bound to weaken the Party's organisation and electoral power. It added "the growth of our Party has been the most significant achievement of modern times."

Analogies have been made between the 1930s and 1980s by Labour activists and historians. They were times of defeats for the labour movement. Times when the working class was divided between the 'soft south' in the 19805, where workers still had jobs, benefited from rising house prices and low inflation generally and seemed to have little in common with miners losing their jobs and all prospects of employment, and the unemployed 'underclass' living on run-down council estates.

In the 1930s the differentials were even starker. The 'distressed areas' as they came to be called were like a foreign country for the rest of Britain. In areas like South Wales unemployment was as high as 700%, whereas in West London it was as low as 30%. For workers whom had jobs living standards actually increased in the 1930s. Prices of commodities were falling, faster even for those who had taken wage cuts.

Many homes had electricity for the first time. This had more of an impact on home life than the consumer craze of the 1980s which, included videos, personal stereos and CDs. Workers moving into new industrial areas such as West London were able to buy their homes for the first time, on a much lower percentage of their income than in the 19805. Also councils had the money to embark on public housing schemes. This was particularly taken up by Labour Councils such as the London County Council, and council estates in suburbia (much to the horror of the local Conservatives) were built for workers who were in steady jobs and could be relied upon to keep the gardens watered and the rents paid. For the first time millions of workers had paid holidays. This was fought for by the labour movement. So the image of the 1930s as a time of unemployed men on street corners and hunger marches was only part of the story.

Historians such as Pimlott have given a lot of publicity to the 'splits' in the Labour Party in the 1930s. His book which draws crass analogies between the 1930s and 1980s gives the impression that Labour was hopelessly split, and tied up with internal wrangling between left and right and therefore not electable. He also implies that alliances with other parties, such as the Liberals would have helped Labour. The experience of 1929-31 had shown that the Liberals were not reliable allies and the Lib-Lab pact had finished. Labour had no need of electoral alliances to win power. Its downfall had been its position of a minority government in both 1924 and 1929.


On the question of the influence of the left, the facts were that the left was largely not involved in the Labour Party at this time on an organised basis. Why had this come about? The Communist Party's attempts to affiliate to the Labour Party had failed. The Communist Party had inherited many of the sectarian attitudes of its predecessor, the Social Democratic Federation, and although committed to work in the Labour Party as part of the policy of the Communist International, it had never been very successful. After the defeat of the general strike the Labour leadership consolidated its position and proscribed parties supporting the Left Wing movement, which had the backing of the Communist Party. However by 1928 the Communist Party of Great Britain, like the rest of the Communist International, carried out the sectarian policies associated with the 'Third Period.' This was a period when the CP denounced Labour and Social Democratic party members as 'social fascists'. All united front work was abandoned, trade unions were split and the CP organised front organisations, substituting itself for the Labour movement. In Germany this led to the break up of joint work between the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party to fight fascism. In a grotesque twist of policy the German KPD even organised joint strikes with the Nazis ! When Hitler came to power the leader of the German Communist Party, Thaelmann, said 'it will be our turn next.' The reality was that many workers from both parties died together in the concentration camps, the tragic consequences of the sectarian policy of the Communist Intemational. The defeat of the German labour movement, the strongest workers movement in Europe overshadowed the 1930s and led to the Second World War.


Because of the relatively small size of the Communist Party of Great Britain this sectarianism had less impact on the British labour movement, than in other countries but it meant that initiatives taken by the left, the hunger marches, the Left Book Club and even aid for Spain, remained outside of the official Labour movement. Furthermore the influence of the CP led to the defection of the Independent Labour Party from the Labour Party. The ILP had become the organised left in the Party and after 1931 was posed to become influential in party policy. But it disaffiliated in 1932 on a procedural issue, at a time when Labour was moving to the left and building its strength. This defection had more of an impact on the organisation of the Labour Party than the defeat inflicted by the formation of the National Government and the defection of Ram say MacDonald.

In some of the old industrial areas, Labour Party branches collapsed on a wholesale basis as ILPers abandoned the Party. This was the case in traditional areas such as Scotland. However in the new industrial areas where the Labour Party was to make the most rapid gains in the 1930s this impact was minimal. A new left group within the Party was set up, called the Socialist League, led by Stafford Cripps MP. It had 3,000 members, and not much of an industrial base. It tended to attract intellectuals. Although its policies were radical, calling for an enabling act to carry out nationalisation, a policy which was echoed by the Labour leadership (Atlee himself), its impact upon the party was not decisive. In fact it was not very significant at all.

It was disaffiliated from the Labour Party over the issue of support for the Popular Front, a policy pursued by the Communist International and the Communist Party of Great Britain, which called on all workers and 'progressive' bourgeois parties to sink their differences to form an alliance against fascism. The Young Communist League

had links with the Labour League of Youth causing the Labour leadership to intervene and disaffiliate branches. However it can- not be said that in-fighting dominated the life of the Labour Party in the 1930s. Leaders such as Bevin took a hard line against any campaign linked to the Communist Party at party conferences but this had little impact on the grassroots of the Party.

So was Labour's policy too left in the 1930s for the Party to be elected? Labour's policy in the 1930s did not change fundamentally from the 1929 election manifesto, Labour and the nation. This called for selective nationalisation. Its programme was not substantially different to Let us face the future which was to lead the Party to a landslide victory in 1945. Labour remained committed to nationalisation, equality, the establishment of a minimum wage and the extension of planning and public works. In the 1930s this programme became more fleshed out, with the publishing of documents on how industries would be run under Labour.

Programmes were drawn up for the agricultural worker, the 'black coated worker' (as clerical and professional workers were then called), for mothers and so on. Labour was gaining a blueprint for running society. The policy of the 'living wage' campaigned for by the ILP in the 19205, now became respectable as part of an 'alternative economic policy.' The financial orthodoxy of people like Snowdon was replaced by the economic thinking of Ernest Bevin who did more than any other individual to convert the Labour Party to 'Keynesianism.' Balanced budgets had no longer to be the order of the day. Exchange controls were in. The National Government itself even started to go down those lines. But the main inspiration for Bevin came from the New Deal implemented by the Roosevelt Government in the USA. The USA now seen as the home of the free market economy, in the 1930s pioneered economic controls and planning under capitalism. Not that the Labour Party called itself 'Keynesianist.' No - Keynes was just another bourgeois economist. But policies which advocated higher wages, higher consumption and public works to solve the crisis and create jobs could only be popular with the labour movement.


This was the change to Labour's policy in the 1930s. Still committed to a socialist future, it argued that this was the way forward on a practical basis to solve the crisis. In practice capitalism did not have to be overthrown. It was very attractive because it could accommodate the socialist aspirations of the rank and file with the desire of the Labour leadership for office. Labour was swimming with the tide, but on the basis of respectability, without abandoning any of its fundamental principles. The role of the left was only to argue for more and swifter nationalisation, workers' control, more public works, and higher wages. The argument against private ownership had been won. This was a different reality from the 1980s and indeed from the 1990s.

The organisation of the Labour Party went ahead in the 1930s. The decade saw one of the highest movements of population every seen in the UK as workers migrated from the old industrial areas to the new areas of West London and the West Midlands. Employment in the mines and the shipyards was replaced with employment in electrical engineering, service industries such as films, and cars. This was even before the armaments led boom took off in the mid 1930s. Areas like the Great West Road in London had the heaviest concentration of industry per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. The unions turned their campaigning to these new industries, campaigning on wages and productivity- against the Bedaux system, a time and motion regime popular with employers. There are analogies here with the 1990s as workers in jobs were often super-exploited for the wages that they earned. Contrary to popular belief today it was difficult to organise these new plants and there were often battles at factories, like Firestones.

Employers were hostile, and workers were often glad to have jobs. New factories had canteens, works sports facilities were available and a Christmas party for the kids. The new employers had taken a leaf out of the books 01 German and American employers and resorted to paternalism. So in spite of the campaigning activities of the unions organised through trades councils, many of these factories did not become bastions of the trades union movement until after 1945. Nevertheless progress was made and by 1936, 9 million workers were covered by trades union agreements. The main unions to gain were the Transport and General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. However the level of strikes in the 1930s remained comparatively low. One famous dispute took place on the London buses, for a shorter working week.


The unions gaining in membership continued to exercise an impor1ant influence upon the Labour Party. The membership of the Labour Party doubled between 1928-1936. In 1936 Labour had more members than it has today, 90% of whom were active! 1932 recorded the largest increase in Party membership of all time. It is interesting to note that 50% of the membership were women. Labour won by-elections with massive swings against the National Government. For instance in Fulham in 1934 a 20% swing overturned a Conservative majority of over 14,000 votes. Labour won control of important local authorities such as London and Glasgow. 

In spite of the defeat of 1931, Labour was on course to win the 1935 election. In fact it won 8,376, 131 votes, as many as in 1929 but only 154 seats. The election however was fought under unusual circumstances with the war scare over Abyssinia, helping the Conservative Party. The League of Nations failed to stop Italian aggression against Abyssinia (Ethiopia), putting the peace of Europe again in jeopardy. The League of Nations had support from all parties in the 1920S and 1930S, but the peace movement had been more enthusiastically embraced by Labour. This had reflected the mood of the times, with the mushrooming of peace organisations both in Britain and internationally in the 1920s and 1930s. Labour had captured the mood, when Ramsay Macdonald addressed a rally in the Albert Hall in 1926, with the words 'We will not fight.' This mood had persisted up to 1934, to the Fulham bye-election. In 1933 the Oxford Union had passed its famous resolution-'we will not fight for King and Country.' However the activities of the dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler, the rise of fascism in Spain put the peace movement into retreat. Labour's leader in 1935, George Lansbury, rather like Michael Foot during the Falklands Crisis was wrong footed on the issue of pacifism as war panic gripped the country. The Tories were duly elected. But the issue of peace was not clear cut. The Conservative Party had supported the League of Nations. More critically the Conservative Party had its appeasers-the 'Clivedon Set' who supported Hitler. The Labour left had difficulties in generating a policy for peace which would not be dependent upon the League of Nations. However Labour began winning by-elections again in 1936 and 1937 and had there been a general election in 1939, it is possible that Labour would have won. 

The war cut across that. Labour's victory in 1945 has been put down purely to the experience of war and the services vote. This surely helped Labour to win. But it was also the experience of the 1930s and the rebuilding of the Party both organisationally and politically which provided the groundwork. The movement of population meant that Labour was no longer confined to the industrial heartlands. Workers moving into new areas of London and the South East took their socialist traditions with them, and were often the backbone of the Party in the 1930s and 1940s. Labour was no longer a sectional party. Votes could be transferred into seats.

Labour rebuilt in the 1930s, on the basis of maintaining its programme and independence. Some would say that it was moving with the tide and was able to take over in 1945 purely because the Labour leadership had the only programme which 'could modernise Britain' for the capitalist class. The Tories were in disarray, still tinged with the mass unemployment image of the 1930s and many were still wedded to unrestrained free enterprise. This was only part of the story. Labour remained a party rooted in the working class, based on the trade union movement and with a commitment to socialism on behalf of its rank and file. Without that it would have withered on the vine and would not have survived the 1930s to get elected with a landslide victory in 1945. The successes, opportunities and limitations of the 1945 Labour Govemment and beyond will be discussed in the next issue.

April 1997.