Politics

What Keir Starmer can learn from Britain's first Labour government – 100 years ago

While history hasn't treated the first Labour parliament of 1924 kindly, it deserves more credit for the work it did in just nine months

Labour government, 1924

The first Labour cabinet under Ramsay MacDonald (seated, fourth from right), January 1924. Image: ANL/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

A century ago this month, a political revolution took place in the United Kingdom. There was no violence, only a few red flags and the British establishment lived to fight another day. But, for the first time, a Labour government was formed.  

That might seem unremarkable from the vantage point of early 2024, with the Conservatives and Labour having shared office for decades, but in the early 1920s it was considered a near-revolutionary moment. The Russian Revolution of 1917 – which had been very violent – was still fresh in the public mind, and many wealthy Brits feared they’d be deprived of their assets. Critics called them ‘the wild men’.  

Britain’s first Labour government was acutely conscious of this fear of the unknown, so did its best to send out reassuring signals to the City of London, the Royal Family and nervous middle-class voters. This didn’t mean it wasn’t more progressive than its Conservative and Liberal predecessors, just that it had to tread carefully.  

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Not least because the first Labour government had only 191 MPs – less than a third of the House of Commons. Only with tacit Liberal support did it survive until October 1924. But how did it come about at all?  

In December 1923 Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister, called an election because he wanted to change his government’s economic policy from free trade to something called ‘protection’ to try and tackle post-war unemployment. It’s safe to say he miscalculated. Instead of increasing his party’s majority – which was the plan – the Tories lost seats. Although it still emerged the largest single party, there was a three-way split in the Commons.  

And while a Tory-Liberal coalition would have solved that problem, a previous partnership had only broken up in 1922 amid considerable acrimony. As a result, when Baldwin faced parliament for the first time in January 1924, he lost a confidence motion on the King’s Speech and the monarch – George V – sent for the person next best placed to command the ‘confidence’ of MPs.  

That was Ramsay MacDonald, an illegitimate son of a farm hand from the north of Scotland. Having only been Labour leader since 1923, it was a remarkable turnaround in his political fortunes. A decade earlier he had taken a principled stand against the First World War, something which cost him his constituency and reputation. Now he was in charge of Britain and its then-vast Empire.   

So how did MacDonald and his colleagues do? History hasn’t judged the first Labour government kindly, which is understandable given it only lasted nine months. But in my new book, The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of the First Labour Government, I argue that it deserves a little more credit.  

First of all, the fact a Labour government was formed at all was testament to Ramsay MacDonald’s political skills: he seized the opportunity to enter office despite trepidation on the left of his party. Second, MacDonald assumed the role of foreign secretary as well as premier, and within a few months had won international acclaim for renegotiating the controversial Versailles Treaty and its punitive reparations against Germany. Together with the ebullient trade unionist Jimmy Thomas, MacDonald also helped complete the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which allowed most of Ireland to achieve independence from the UK. No mean feat given the long-standing difficulty of the ‘Irish Question’.  

The budget presented by chancellor Philip Snowden to the House of Commons in April 1924 was also a surprise triumph, managing to satisfy every major party and reassuring the middle classes that they wouldn’t be penalised. At the same time, Labour quietly dropped its proposed ‘capital levy’ (a wealth tax), knowing it lacked adequate support.  

Then there was health minister John Wheatley’s Housing Bill, which has often been acknowledged as the only legislative achievement of the first Labour administration. A lack of affordable housing had dogged governments for years, and it took the cherubic Wheatley finally to grasp the nettle. Through considerable diplomacy, he brought trade unions and the construction industry together to agree a long-term building plan backed with Treasury support.  

Although a future Conservative government reversed much of Wheatley’s legislation, his legacy was still considerable. The solid brick terraces which dominate the suburbs of almost every British city could not have been built without John Wheatley. And although not ‘socialism’ per se, what became known as ‘council housing’ transformed the lives of thousands of working-class people.   

So why has all this been virtually ignored? In part, the legacy of the first Labour government has been cancelled out by the actions of the second. In 1931 Ramsay MacDonald agreed to lead a ‘national government’ comprising Tories and Liberals, something the Labour Party called the ‘great betrayal’. But now a century has passed, the wild men of 1924 deserve greater credit for having demonstrated that – contrary to contemporary fears – they were fit to govern.  

Wild Men book cover

The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of the First Labour Government is out 18 January (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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