Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

5. Proving Labour ‘Fit to Govern’:
The 1924 Administration

ALTHOUGH the first Labour Government lasted just nine months, it showed the important qualitative change the Party undergoes when in Government. MacDonald’s tenancy of 10 Downing Street was in one way just the completion of 30 years’ political work. Yet in another sense it was a sharp break with the past. Labour’s mediation between class and nation had to alter dramatically.

Reformist politicians deny the fundamental contradiction between working class interests and capitalism, and most of the time rank and file workers and the trade union bureaucracy share this belief. Labourism seems to be sound common sense. But as Engels puts it: ‘sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out.’ [1] Workers’ false consciousness can be shaken by contact with the reality of a Labour government if they are forced to generalise through struggle and move towards clear class politics. Professional reformists respond differently. Their attitude is shaped not by working class concerns but the national framework in which they operate.

Labour government was a necessary experience for the workers’ movement. It broke the centuries-long ruling class monopoly. Never before could it be said:

An engine-driver rose to the rank of Colonial Secretary, a starveling clerk became Great Britain’s Premier, a foundry-hand was changed to Foreign Secretary, the son of a Keighley weaver was created Chancellor of the Exchequer, one miner became Secretary for War and another Secretary of State for Scotland. [2]

Only a Labour government could show whether this made any difference. It was a practical step towards demonstrating the bankruptcy of reformism. Government office was necessary to put Labour’s rhetoric to the test.

In 1924 Labour had a dual task. Firstly, even though it did not fully control the state (thus in October civil servants and secret servicemen helped bring the Tories back), Labour was responsible for it. Secondly, its position in ‘the executive committee of the ruling class’, made Labour the guardian of British capitalism as a whole. We shall deal with each aspect in turn.

Who captures whom?

Labour’s supporters thought the new cabinet symbolised a working-class capture of the state. The truth was the other way round.

Take the role of the top civil servant. Thomas declared: ‘the country ought to feel everlastingly indebted. His brain capacity is first class. No one can challenge his absolute integrity and desire to serve.’ [3] With touching naivete Clynes, the deputy party leader, ‘found the permanent officials extraordinarily helpful and kind’. He saw nothing sinister in the fact that: ‘They were always beside me, advising, coaching and checking; and in a short time I gained a measure of knowledge necessary in matters where, perhaps, national safety or the spending of millions of money was concerned.’ [4]

The remarkable influence of the senior civil servant was illustrated by Thomas Jones of the Cabinet Secretariat. His diaries are a chronicle of manipulation. [5] Jones was ‘a passionate Free-Trader, an intimate and trusted friend of Lloyd George [who] voted Liberal’. [6] He himself describes how on 9 October 1924 the King’s Speech, the final word of the Labour government, was put together:

Sidney Webb suddenly entered my room and announced that ... he wanted a draft of the King’s Speech in twenty minutes ... He began writing at once a paragraph on unemployment while I rang up Sir Eyre Crowe [and other Civil Servants] ... Sir Otto Niemeyer from the Treasury and Sir John Shuckburgh ... Sir Claude Schuster blew in to say that he would like a reference made to the immediacy of the dissolution ... Hankey took, p. by, p. to the PM, for final approval. I think he saw about half the speech in this way. He made no change of any kind and left the rest to us to finish off as we like. [7]

A few weeks later Jones was giving Baldwin tips on who to include in the newly-elected Tory cabinet and writing anti- Bolshevik speeches for him.

MacDonald well understood the power of the unelected official over the minister. He categorically rejected a Labour Party suggestion that the government appoint its own advisors: ‘a Civil Service told quite frankly that we have no confidence in it would never work at all.’ [8] [1*]

The army was also a sacrosanct institution. Stephen Walsh at the War Office ‘was entirely unable to conceal his reverence for generals’, saying ‘I know my place. You have commanded Armies in the Field when I was nothing but a private in the ranks.’ [10] MacDonald himself dared not place ‘a mere commoner and a Socialist’ in control of ‘the King’s Navy’ and put a diehard Tory there instead. [11] The intelligence services made clear their contempt for elected persons when they refused to let the premier see his own secret file. [12] Nine months later they helped the Tories return by concocting a famous forgery – ‘Zinoviev’s red letter’ – with Conservative Central Office and White Russian emigres.

With the army came imperialism. Thomas’s first words at the Colonial Office were ‘I’m here to see that there is no mucking about with the British Empire.’ [13]

Finally we come to the pinnacle of this great establishment heap – the throne. The way in which most Labour ministers literally fell over themselves to conform to pomp and ceremony would have been laughable had it not been so nauseating. [2*] When Labour took office George V wrote in his diary: ‘23 years ago dear Grand mama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government!’ [14] He was calmed at his first interview with MacDonald who emphasised ‘his earnest desire was to serve his King and Country’. MacDonald assured the king that he would try to break Labour’s irritating habit of singing The Red Flag and pointed out that he had already used ‘all his influence and that of his moderate and immediate friends’ to prevent this song being sung in the Commons! [15]

Sublime majesty inevitably exuded from the rest of the royal brood. Of the queen, Thomas exclaimed ‘with what dignity and charm she will fulfil her great task ... the people took to her instantly and instinctively. The presence, the personality – and the smile, which in itself radiates confidence and affection – are all there and will assuredly be used for the benefit of her people.’ [17] It took an outsider like Wertheimer to appreciate how utterly ludicrous was this ‘rather Gilbertian vista of a preponderantly Socialist society with a feudal first chamber [consisting of a] hereditary nobility’. [18]

The fact that the state had swallowed the Labour government whole showed itself in innumerable ways. We shall give just two examples, one small, one great. Arthur Henderson, the former lay preacher, found as Home Secretary that, against his beliefs, he was expected to hang criminals. His biographer records that he ‘took the line that his immediate duty was to administer the law ... and fortunately for him, the murderers he had to hang were such as not to deserve too much public sympathy’. [19] [3*]

Of more political importance was the selection of the cabinet. Labour’s internal procedure is no model of proletarian democracy, but at least the indirect methods of block voting and conferences allow a bare minimum of rank and file self-expression. However, following precedent, MacDonald took himself off to his solitary retreat of Lossiemouth and like Moses with the tablets, emerged a fortnight later brandishing the Cabinet list. What an extraordinary document! With the exception of John Wheatley at Health the entire Labour left was excluded. But there were two Tories, an ex-Tory and four ex-Liberals. Two other Conservatives had been invited to the cabinet. [4*]

In answer to our question – ‘who captured whom?’ – the answer was quite clear. The state had captured the Labour Party. A new relationship between the Labour Party, the ruling class and the workers was about to emerge.

Managing the system

Until 1924 Labour’s attitude to many questions could afford to be vague. That changed with the advent of government and responsibility for the economy. As Margaret Bondfield (later to become the first woman cabinet minister in the 1929-31 Labour government) explained: ‘We have taken over a bankrupt machine, and we have got to make that rickety machine work. There are some of us who will lose our reputations before this is done.’ [23] How right she was!

The first months of the year saw a spate of strikes principally in transport. Workers wanted to use a partial economic recovery and the government they themselves elected, to advance their position. But the first ever meeting of a Labour Cabinet ‘without hesitation and without a dissentient voice’ [24] set in motion the blacklegs’ charter – the Emergency Powers Act (EPA). [25] Thomas and Gosling, leaders of the rail and transport unions took the top posts in the government’s scabbing body, the Supply and Transport Organisation. They met their own union officials and ‘made it perfectly clear that the government was under the obligation to secure the food for the people’ and waved a ‘Proclamation of Emergency [which] the Government will not hesitate to use’. [26]

In March the cabinet decided that if the tram and bus strike meant ‘the protection which the government could offer could not be supplied by the ordinary Police service ... it would be necessary to employ Special Constables’. Furthermore it was ‘actually arranged with Lord Chelmsford to bring up 800 naval ratings to keep the power stations going (as it was afterwards discovered, going even beyond the law in giving him a Cabinet order).’ [27]

Henderson contributed a new design for the old scab recruitment poster. The only changes were two additions, proudly pro-claiming that ‘the Government’ had issued the poster and that therefore there was ‘No Blacklegging Involved’. According to Henderson’s new English dictionary, under Labour strike-breaking was no longer the same as blacklegging. Moreover the government should be complimented for such activities:

In the past the methods of dealing with an emergency and even the fact that the Government was prepared to take any steps at all, were shrouded in a certain atmosphere of secrecy. That was due to the supposition that a considerable party in the state might be in opposition to the action of the Government ... it is obviously incorrect with a Labour Government in office. There is nothing to be ashamed of ... [28]

But it was a notable fact that the Labour never had to use its elaborate strike-breaking provisions. It had a more effective method of blocking militancy – the good offices of the union bureaucracy, which imposed settlements arranged by the government. In the first six months no less than 80 cases were referred to Industrial Courts while there were five full government commissions to resolve the biggest disputes. [29] To the chagrin of the opposition, Bondfield gloated: ‘This Government, at any rate has an advantage which many Members on the opposite benches do not share. [It is] in an exceptionally favourable position to deal with industrial disputes.’ [30]

Labour was acting as manager of capitalism and became increasingly public about it. Some workers could not believe the transformation. During a dock strike, for example, workers in Gloucester called on the prime minister ‘to use at once emergency powers to take full control of all shipping and docks to pay the increases asked for’. [31] They would not make the same mistake twice.

Labour’s new role was a nasty surprise for the union bureaucracy. Loyalty meant they felt compelled to do the government’s dirty work, but the fact remained – the party they had created now openly threatened them. A sign of how keen Labour was to prove its independence from the unions was that it ended the established practice of showing the TUC proposed labour legislation before it reached the Commons. [32] Tom Shaw said ‘Parliament is the body to which the Government must submit its proposals ... it would be wrong to take the line that any other right to ask consultation’. [33]

The union bureaucracy were angry. Bevin confessed: ‘I only wish it had been a Tory Government in office. We would not have been frightened by their threats.’ [34] Bromley of the engine drivers’ union felt that: ‘If the success of the Labour Party and of a Labour Government can only be built on such serious losses in wages and conditions by the workers, then I am not sure the workers will very much welcome a Labour Government.’ [35] Union officials did not like having to act as government agents in settling strikes because this eroded their authority among the rank and file. Yet grumble as they might, it was the union bureaucracy that bailed the Labour Government out.

The true capitalist party?

In August 1924, Leo Chiozza Money, one of Labour’s representatives on the Sankey Commission, published an article in the ILP’s Forward, entitled Labour, the True Capitalism. It argued:

Labour at least should make it clear that it is, in the true sense of the word, a Capitalist Party – a Party, that is, that intends to wield capital on the large scale to national advantage. [36]

The government came perilously close to proving his point. The prime minister told the opening session of the new parliament:

We shall concentrate not first of all on the relief of unemployment, but on the restoration of trade ... the Government has no intention of drawing off from the normal channels of trade large sums for extemporised measures which can only be palliatives. That is the old, sound Socialist doctrine [!] and the necessity of expenditure ... will be judged in relation to the greater necessity for maintaining undisturbed the ordinary financial facilities (cheers from Conservative benches). [37]

When class and nation (in the form of British capital) were put in the balance, nation proved ‘the greater necessity’.

MacDonald’s espousal of an openly capitalist philosophy was only surpassed by Philip Snowden at the Exchequer. In opposition he had seen heavy direct taxation as a means of redistributing wealth to the poor, proposing: ‘taxation of the rents of landlords and the profits of the capitalist for the purpose of financing schemes for social betterment.’ [38] Now he saw his role in this way:

It is no part of my job ... to put before the House of Commons proposals for the expenditure of public money. The function of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as I understand it, is to resist all demands for expenditure made by his colleagues and, when he can no longer resist, to limit the concession to the barest point of acceptance.

Clutching the Treasury purse strings, Snowden described his fellow Ministers as ‘a pack of ravenous wolves’. [39]

Accordingly the ‘first socialist budget’ contained no surprises. Concluding his Commons presentation, Snowden remarked that the former Tory Chancellor ‘claimed it was a “Tory budget” ... Indeed I hear on authority that there is a movement in the City of London to erect a statue to me’. [40]

Wheatley makes his mark

Against this picture must be set the one success story of the government – John Wheatley, the solitary left-winger. His tenure at Health was notable for his handling of Poplarism (which will be dealt with later) and the Housing Act. The latter led to the erection of 521,700 houses before being discontinued in 1933. [41] It slipped through Snowden’s penny-pinching grasp because its initial cost was low. To encourage local councils to build new houses, costs were to be subsidised from central funds over a period of 40 years.

Did Wheatley’s Act prove that with the right personnel Labour can lead the way to socialism? Alas, Wheatley’s success came from skilfully co-ordinating capitalist industry to make it efficient. He had the honesty to say as much himself: ‘The Labour Party’s programme on housing is not a Socialist programme at all. I wish it were.’ [42] During the final passage of his Act through parliament Wheatley asserted:

I have left private enterprise exactly where I found it ... as the protector of the small builder I am the defender of private enterprise and one of its best friends. I am completely frank and honest about it ... It requires Labour proposals, Socialist proposals if you like, in order that private enterprise can get going again. [43]

The overall achievement

Given the mildly favourable economic circumstances in which it was operating, even within a capitalist framework Labour could afford to offer certain reforms and, in addition to housing, some were indeed forthcoming. [5*] But these were only marginally different from what the capitalist parties would have done in the circumstances.

We have the word of numerous contemporary politicians for this. The Tory MP Leo Amery wrote that Labour Ministers took ‘practically the same view of things as the late Capitalist Government.’ [45] Baldwin confided his ‘worries of a Party leader in days when there are no deep political convictions to divide men of good will’. [46] He had expected ‘some great revolution in method’ only to find ‘nothing more than a strict adherence to what has been done by the last Government and the Government before that and the Government before that.’ [47] Asquith felt that ‘most if not all of the [prime minister’s] proposals are to be found in the election programme of one or another of the various parties ... It is not a new departure.’ [48] This was a truth the Labour government was proud to acknowledge, stating ‘clearly and definitely that there is no break in the continuity of our policy.’ [49]

One can only sympathise with the New Statesman’s sad conclusion: ‘In the sphere of foreign policy there are no definable party differences, even in home affairs party differences are by no means clear.’ [50] MacDonald’s eagerness to prove Labour’s worth to the ruling class meant, as the historian of the first Labour government puts it, that: ‘too often Labour’s proposals fell far short of what could reasonably be expected – add publicly demanded of the Liberals.’ [51] It was this desire for respectability that brought the government to an ignominious end.

The Red Bogey

By the end of the summer of 1924, the opposition parties were getting restless for power. The end came when the government botched the ‘Campbell case’. On 25 July the acting editor of the Communist Workers’ Weekly, J.R. Campbell, published an open letter calling on soldiers to refuse orders to break strikes. The government began proceedings under the 1795 Incitement to Mutiny Act. No sooner had this started than they discovered a prosecution was unlikely to succeed. When the case was dropped MacDonald came under fire in the Commons and resigned after making this issue one of confidence.

What made things ridiculous was that the government had got itself into the mess because it was so keen to prove its anti-Communist credentials. Thus MacDonald told the king: ‘Nothing would have pleased me better than to have appeared in the witness box, when I might have said some things that might have added a month or two to the sentence.’ [52]

Labour’s anti-Communist paranoia had destroyed the government. It now helped lose the election. The secret service ‘discovered’ a letter addressed to the British Communist Party and purporting to be from Zinoviev, the Comintern president, shortly before the vote. It called for the creation of Communist military units in the British army. Instead of exposing this document as an obvious forgery, MacDonald gave it credibility by denouncing it more zealously than the Liberals and Tories would have done, and by drafting a formal protest, with Foreign Office connivance the ‘red letter’ appeared in the Daily Mail three days before polling day. Having made so much of the letter itself. Labour was in no position to deny the implication that the country was about to be consumed by civil war unless a strong right-wing government were returned.

The real losers in the October 1924 election were the Liberals. They fell to 42 MPs while the Tories won an outright majority with 413. Labour actually gained 1.1 million votes though they lost forty seats, falling to 151. Despite last-minute bungling, Labour had established itself, not as a party of real socialism (which at that time would not have attracted many millions of votes) but as the credible party to form His Majesty’s Opposition.

Conclusion: Labour in government

So far we have characterised Labour as a capitalist workers’ party whose leaders attempt to mediate between the two main classes of society. This changed when Labour formed a government. To understand Why, it is useful to compare the differing roles of the union bureaucrat and reformist politician.

The union official is squeezed between workers’ collective organisation in production on one side and the need to negotiate deals with the bosses on the other. As Clynes described it: ‘He is a man who works for two masters ... The men who appoint have the right to demand his loyalty, and the employers with whom he has to deal on behalf of the men expect fairness and reason.’ [53] To function at all officials must maintain some relationship with the rank and file or their deals cannot be made to stick. Furthermore, while union leaders may be invited to meet management or even participate in some joint committee, they are never made respon­sible for the running of the capitalist operation.

There are no such constraints on Labour governments. Their chief link with ordinary workers is not through collective organisation but the passive medium of voting, and even this ceases once the polling booths shut. It is a mistake to see electoralism as the key determinant of Labour’s behaviour, for it totally fails to explain why Labour governments have indulged in policies which are obviously going to lose votes from the working class – on whom the party’s electoral fortunes depend.

From the moment they take office therefore, ministers are freed from any but the most indirect working-class pressure (via the TUC, the party’s national executive or perhaps extra-parliamentary action) but are fully responsible for the bourgeois state. What makes their situation worse is that while the cabinet is formally head of the ‘management team’, its real influence is circumscribed on all sides – by civil servants, army chiefs and above all by the capitalist economy. Labour is compelled to bow down before the ‘national’ element in the class/nation equation. This dictates the degree to which Labour governments can deliver reforms.


1*. This tenderness to the feelings of civil servants did not extend to lower grades who had been agitating for the right to vote and affiliate to political organisations. The TUC was behind their claim, as was Labour and the New Social Order. Whatever the minority position of Labour in the Commons, the government could freely alter civil service regulations and yet, as W J Brown of the Clerical Association told the 1925 Labour Conference: ‘while the Labour Government was in office ... the Treasury Committee to which the matter had been referred, produced a Report which left Civil Servants in rather a worse position than they were in before.’ [9]

2*. Perhaps pathetic would be the more appropriate epithet. Beatrice Webb’s diary records how: ‘Uncle Arthur [Henderson] was bursting with childish joy over his Home Office seals in the red leather box which he handed round the company; Sidney was chuckling over a hitch in the solemn ceremony in which he had been right and Hankey [chief of the Cabinet Secretariat] wrong; they were all laughing over Wheatley – -the revolutionary – going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand.’ [16]

3*. Clynes, Home Secretary in the second Labour government, overcame his loathing of hanging and flogging by reasoning that however strong my desire to change it may be ... it is the right of the public to change the law. It is the duty of the Minister to apply the law.’ [20]

[4*. The two Tories were Lord Chelmsford, former colonial governor and Viceroy of India, ‘a real aristocrat of the traditional type’ [21] and Lord Parmoor, father of Stafford Cripps. He was a lifelong Conservative, Churchman and believer in “Christian methods” in government, who made a reputation ... defending employers’ rights in relation to Workmen’s Compensation’. [22] The most prominent former Liberal was Lord Haldane a vocal supporter of the Taff Vale judgement.

5*. Clegg gives the following summary of the chief social reforms:

‘Trevelyan at the Board of Education, increased the grants to schools starved of money ... and set up the Hadow Committee to devise means of providing secondary education for all.

‘Shaw at the ministry of Labour, was responsible for two Unemployment Insurance Acts. The first abolished the gap of three weeks between periods of benefit ... The second combined a number of administrative improvements with a substantial improvement in benefits – from 75p to 90p a week for men [etc.]’ [44]

In addition Labour cut the navy’s cruiser-building programme from eight to five (still far higher than its pacifist programme suggested) and ceased work on a naval base at Singapore.


1. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking 1976), p. 26.

2. Clynes, p. 17.

3. Thomas, p. 169.

4. Clynes, Vol. 2, p. 45

5. See for example the exchange of letters between Hankey and Jones, numbers one and two in the Cabinet Secretariat during September 1926, in Jones, pp. 73–75.

6. S.W. Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, Vol. 1 (London 1942), p. 352.

7. See Jones, pp. 301 and 306.

8. Quoted in Marquand, p. 417.

9. Labour Conference 1925, p. 197.

10. Quoted in R.W. Lyman, The First Labour Government (London 1957), p. 106.

11. L. MacNeill Weir, The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald (London 1938), p. 46.

12. A. Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (Manchester 1987), p. 103.

13. Quoted in Lyman, p. 106.

14. H. Nicolson, George V (London 1952), p. 384.

15. Nicolson, pp. 384–6.

16. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 4, p. 10 (entry for 28 January 1924).

17. Thomas, p. 152.

18. Wertheimer, p. 88.

19. M.A. Hamilton, Arthur Henderson (London 1938), p. 242.

20. Clynes, p. 142; see also, p. 153.

21. MacNeill Weir, p. 146.

22. M. Cowling, The Impact of Labour (Cambridge 1971), p. 369.

23. Quoted in Workers’ Weekly, 29 February 1924.

24. S. Webb, in Political Quarterly (1961), p. 23

25. See Public Record Office document Cab 23/47.

26. PRO Cab 15/24, pp. 166–7; see also K. Jeffery and P. Hennessy, States of Emergency (London 1983).

27. S. Webb, in Political Quarterly (1961), p. 23.

28. PRO Cabinet Paper 211/24.

29. T. Shaw, Can Labour Rule?, number 3, p. 8 (no date or place).

30. Hansard, 23 June 1924.

31. Daily Herald, 18 February 1924 (emphasis added).

32. See R.K. Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society (London 1979), p. 187.

33. PRO Cabinet Paper 204/24.

34. Quoted in V.L. Allen, Trade Unions and the Government (London 1960), p. 231.

35. Quoted in Workers’ Weekly, 18 January 1924.

36. Forward, 16 August 1924.

37. Hansard, 12 February 1924 (emphasis added).

38. Snowden, Socialism and Syndicalism, p. 149.

39. Cross, p. 207.

40. Hansard, 1 May 1924.

41. Mowat, p. 176.

42. Hansard, 26 March 1924.

43. Hansard, 23 June 1924.

44. Clegg and others, p. 365.

45. Quoted in Cowling, p. 372.

46. Jones, p. 275 (diary entry for 9 April 1924); a sign of his personal difficulty was that his son, Oliver Baldwin, became a Labour MP.

47. Hansard, 13 February 1924.

48. Hansard, 13 February 1924.

49. Hansard, 19 February 1924; the actual debate concerned defence.

50. Quoted in Workers Weekly, 8 September 1924.

51. Lyman, p. 235.

52. Nicolson, p. 399.

53. Clynes, Vol. 1, p. 79.

Last updated on 10 January 2017