Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

8. Reformists and the Slump: The Second Labour Government

IF THE GENERAL STRIKE is the recurring nightmare of the trade union bureaucracy, the 1929–31 Labour Government holds terrors for the Party leadership. For the first time a reformist administration had to cope with full-scale capitalist crisis. The result was a disaster which Sidney Webb said ‘finds no parallel in anything in the Parliamentary annals of this or any other county.’ [1] Clement Attlee, saw it as ‘the greatest political betrayal in the political history of this country.’ [2]

The main outlines of the story can be briefly told. Elected in the year of the Wall Street crash, the government limped on aimlessly until the summer of 1931 when it was hit by the full force of what prime minister MacDonald called ‘the economic blizzard’. In August he proposed a 10 per cent cut in unemployment benefit. A majority of the cabinet agreed, but MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas broke with Labour anyway to form a National Government with Tories and Liberals: At the 1931 Election which followed. Labour plummeted from 289 to 46 MPs. With the sole exception of Lansbury, all those cabinet ministers who remained faithful to Labour lost’ their seats.

The road to 1931

After the General Strike the new-found dominance of the Labour right wing was not confined to witch-hunting Communists. Labour acquired a new programme, scrapping Labour and the New Social Order, which it had held since 1918, to make way in 1927 for Labour and the Nation. The change of name was significant. Although the earlier document was by no means revolutionary, the later version was so vague that, in Maxton’s words, it meant ‘giving a free hand to the next Labour Government to define any programme it pleases.’ [3] No doubt MacDonald saw as a virtue the very point criticised by Wheatley: ‘No-one suggests we are doing anything more than undertaking to run capitalism successfully where other people equally qualified have failed to run capitalism in the past.’ [4] [1*]

When Labour won in May 1929 MacDonald prophesied: ‘I have reason to believe that this Government will go down into history as the Government of Employment.’ (!) [6] Labour was the biggest party in the Commons with 289 MPs, though it still lacked an absolute majority, the Tories having 260 and the Liberals 58.

The government made its intentions plain with a king’s speech which ‘chilled the Parliamentary Labour Party’ [7]. One perceptive Tory remarked:

It may be one of fate’s little ironies that the principal tasks confronting the present so-called Socialist administration should be to make Great Britain safe for the capitalist. [8]

Before considering the central issue of unemployment, we will quickly deal with some other items of policy. Labour began by refusing Trotsky Political asylum because he ‘would inevitably be the centre of mischief-making and intrigue.’ [9] This was too much for even some Liberals and Tories, who valued the British tradition of sheltering political refugees.

In revenge for the General Strike Baldwin had passed the hated 1927 Trades Disputes Act to make certain strikes illegal and attack the political levy. Labour and the Nation vowed: ‘Among the first tasks of the Labour Party will be the repeal of the cynical measures of class legislation by which the Conservatives have sought to cripple the strength of trade unionism’. [10] [2*] Yet months passed without action and Ernest Bevin accused the government of backdoor manoeuvres designed to avoid repeal. [11] Grudgingly a weak Bill was introduced in 1931, but according to Mowat the Cabinet secretly arranged for a Liberal amendment to wreck it.’ [12]

Many local Labour authorities had accumulated debts when helping the miners in 1926. They naturally expected a Labour Government to bail them out. Instead they were threatened with a surcharge if they did not settle their accounts. The miners themselves did no better. Labour’s election promise to restore the seven-hour day was forgotten.

Conference had committed Labour to ‘full self-government and self-determination [for India] at the earliest possible moment and by her consent.’ [14] Alas, many Indians took Labour at its word, with the result that after nine months 54,000 were in jail for civil disobedience. One MP said his government was ‘responsible for a repressive movement in India sterner and severer than any repressive movement since the time of the Indian Mutiny.’ [15]

But there was one thing the government was not allowed to forget. Month after month, the capitalist crisis announced its grim presence through the rising toll of unemployment. When Labour came into office this stood at 1.3 million, or 10 per cent of the workforce. After a year this had risen to two million. At the end of Labour’s tenure of office the figure was 2.7 million or a staggering 22 per cent of all workers. [16]

Of course Labour could blame the economic system for unemployment. The president of the 1930 Labour Conference said in her address: ‘it is not within the power of any single country to deal with the roots of these evils by means of any purely national policy.’ [17] But the crux of Labour argument was that the results of capitalism could be removed within a ‘single country’ by using parliament to carry out a ‘purely national policy’.

Jimmy Thomas was picked to tackle unemployment because of special qualifications – an intimate acquaintance with leading bankers and industrialists! He inevitably failed. In a private capitalist economy government job creation projects alone, however massive, could never turn the tide of unemployment. His schemes were in any case limited, because the Cabinet had decided:

we must not be rushed into shovelling out public money merely for the purpose of taking ... people off the unemployed register ... Both for political and financial reasons, we must do all we can to combat the present feeling of insecurity in our financial prospects, and we must, therefore, avoid all schemes involving heavy additions to Budget charges or grandiose loan expenditure. [18]

By the end of 1929 the government was arguing that unemployment ‘must continue until the nation assent to conditions wherein production would enlist the services of all who are capable of work, instead of ... compelling large groups of people to remain idle.’ [19] Brilliant! For some it was becoming just too much. Wheatley, already a dying man, looked back on a life of reformist politics and concluded:

In election after election, [workers] are asked not to adopt strike or industrial action, or adopt revolutionary methods, and not to listen to agitators who create confusion in society, but to settle matters reasonably and constitutionally and moderately by the Parliamentary machine ... now they are reaping the reward of their innocence. [20]

Labour had settled down to the business of curing capitalism and freely admitted this must be at the expense of the unemployed. Thomas, who was supposed to reduce unemployment, said: I have deliberately, and will continue deliberately, to proceed [sic] on the basis of a process of rationalisation in industry, which must for weeks increase unemployment figures. I have got to do this in the interests of the country.’ [21] However, curing capitalism was not straightforward. The debate about how best to do this occupied the rest of the government’s term in office.

Economic alternatives

There were many policies considered, but not one of them included socialism. Attlee explained why: ‘We do not believe in the capitalist system. We feel it has failed to deliver the goods and we should like to see it ended. But the country has not yet said that we shall end it. We have no mandate for that.’ [22]

The Tories argued for ‘protecting’ industry by imposing duty on foreign goods. Both Liberals and Labour had a simple and undoubtedly correct reply to their critics. In an economy dependent on importing raw materials and exporting finished articles, that meant suicide. Apart from jacking up prices, reprisals would bring a collapse in international trade. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s.

In their 1928 Yellow Book John Maynard Keynes and the Liberals argued for a massive programme of public works financed by government borrowing. During the 1929 campaign Labour lifted these ideas (reproducing them in a form vague enough to commit it to nothing definite). Once in power Labour changed its time. Now, both Tories and Labour had a simple and undoubtedly correct reply to their critics. Government borrowing would frighten the banks and decrease the already dismally low sums going to investment.

The first Labour government had hinted at the feet that under the pressure of office the leadership abandons its balancing act between class and nation. 1929-31 confirmed the suspicion absolutely. Labour behaved exactly like any other capitalist government. Snowden clung to tried and tested Gladstonian principles – balanced budgets, maintaining sterling’s value and free trade. Winston Churchill described’ Snowden’s appointment as Chancellor in this way:

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials ... Here was the High Priest entering the Sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced ... with the fervour of two long-separated lizards. [23]

Ultimately the most important economic alternative was put by the TUC leaders who toyed with the ideas put forward by Keynes and Hobson. Despite the rhetoric this was yet another ruling-class theory. The TUC blamed problems not on the inevitable results of capitalist accumulation but the disruptive influence of banks and finance. In line with the Mond-Turner talks, the TUC thought that a partnership of labour and capital could modernise industry and save the system.

Other policies were discussed. Sir Oswald Mosley proposed dramatic surgery. A former Tory MP, he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the 1929–31 administration and tipped to succeed MacDonald. Mosley believed the economy could be insulated from a hostile world, using the British Empire for cheap raw materials. At home the government should undertake a grand programme of rationalisation and public works. He later realised that the degree of state planning required would necessitate massive coercion and turned to fascism to provide it. But in 1930 he still hoped Labour would carry out this programme. Finding little support in the cabinet, he took his campaign to the 1930 Labour Conference, losing by the narrow margin of 1,046,000 to 1,251,000. It is indicative of the Labour left who supported him (such as John Strachey and Aneurin Bevan) that they imagined that Mosley’s concept of planning had something to do with socialism.

The ILP offered an ‘alternative economic strategy.’ based on Socialism in Our Time and the minimum wage. This has already been discussed. It could not work in conditions of slump. Just as the cutting of wages cannot ultimately cure crisis, nor can the raising of wages, for this reduces the employers’ rate of profit, the mainspring of capitalism. The only socialist solution to crisis was to smash the system based on capital accumulation. The ILP never thought in such terms. Their left reformism was just one more way of saving capitalism, as Fenner Brockway showed:

To increase the mass purchasing power of the people will result in a growing demand for goods, and ... for labour; and it is only by that method that any hope of an industrial recovery is possible. [24]

But even the most left-wing plans lacked absolution, because all thought in terms of reform within a national framework. The cure for the system’s unemployment (though temporary) came when all major capitalist states were forced to re-arm in the late 1930s to fight each other.

It seems remarkable that this minority government, paralysed by indecision and slump was not thrown out of office long before it collapsed in 1931. So desperate was its situation that when, in June 1930, the Liberals threatened to vote against the government, MacDonald told the cabinet: ‘We could not be better employed ... than going down on our knees and praying to the good God that this may happen.’ [25]

Labour was tolerated because the Opposition parties wanted it to lead the fight to make workers pay for the crisis. As the Liberal leader Herbert Samuel put it: ‘in view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working class, it would be to the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour Government.’ [26]

Labour’s aptitude to the unemployed had been fixed since the days of Keir Hardie. The principle was ‘work or maintenance’. If there were no jobs, then the workless were to have some level of comfort. The tiny reforms enacted in 1929 fell, far short of the party’s manifesto and by the summer of 1930 the minister of labour, Margaret Bondfield, was putting forward proposals for the benefit system which ministers found: ‘so disgusting ... that rather than allowing any danger of their publication, the PM insisted that each copy should be handed in and ... destroyed.’ [27] Nevertheless Bondfield, the first woman cabinet minister, went on to introduce the spiteful ‘Anomalies Act’ specifically designed to disqualify married women who dared claim dole. The government thus ‘saved’ £5 million.

On 11 February 1931 Snowden decided to go beyond threats to action. He told the House of Commons:

the national position is so grave that drastic and disagreeable measures will have to be taken ... An expenditure which may be easy and tolerable in prosperous times becomes intolerable in a time of grave industrial depression [28]

Snowden was fully backed by Willie Graham of the Board of Trade, who later denounced his former ally as a traitor for suggesting economies. The following morning the Daily Herald carried the headline: ‘Britain faces a Crisis ... There must be Sacrifices! But Further Taxation on Industry the Last Straw’. Bourgeois papers announced that the government now favoured cuts in unemployment benefit and wages. A few days later the Daily Herald reported without comment that the prime minister was to meet unions and employers to discuss the employers’ demand for a one-third cut in unemployment benefit, as well as reductions in civil service pay and social services. [29]

However, Snowden had acted prematurely. The Labour leaders needed a bigger panic to bounce the PLP and Labour movement into submission. Luckily for them, the Liberals came to the rescue with a proposal for an inquiry into government finances. The people chosen for this ‘impartial’ investigation were Sir George May of the Prudential Assurance Company (as president), two Labour MPs and four businessmen (including the heads of the Hudson Bay and Cunard Steamship Companies and Lord Plender). [30]

Snowden had to bide his time and use the May Committee report to force workers into accepting the unacceptable. Therefore the April budget made no important changes, but Snowden warned: ‘I definitely contemplate that any gap which occurs in the finance of the year should be met by economy.’ [31] Again Willie Graham echoed his master in the parliamentary debates. [32]

Since the precise details surrounding the fall of the government have been so overlaid with charge and counter-charge we will have to follow its development in some detail. The May Committee reported on 31 July that government finances were tottering on the brink of disaster. £120 million had to found by, among other things, reducing the dole by 20 per cent. On 12 August MacDonald created an emergency Cabinet Economic Committee. It consisted of Henderson, Graham, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas. The first two were to emerge as heroes of the Labour Party. The last three became the villains of the piece. The committee’s first decision was to pursue consultations with the Tories and Liberals.

Certain ideas were then put to the fall cabinet. On 19 August it accepted economies on things like teachers’ pay. £22 million was to come from unemployment spending. The idea that the Labour government was against attacking the unemployed is thus a myth. Savings would come through the means test (which meant that benefits would be withheld until claimants provided proof that they had literally nothing on which to live) through raised National Insurance contributions from workers, and other measures. From the point of view of what followed, however, it must be noted that they had not yet agreed to cut the unemployment benefit rate.

Until this point there was no great disagreement. Even Arthur Henderson, soon to be leader of the anti-MacDonald revolt, had participated in the Economy Committee. As Lord Sankey noted: ‘he and I agreed to equality of sacrifice and cut in the dole.’ [33]

It was the TUC alone that prevented complete capitulation to the economy measures. Sidney Webb’s reaction was expressed in the sort of elegant phrase that made him the foremost Labour intellectual: ‘The General Council are pigs ... they won’t agree to any “cuts” of unemployment insurance benefits or salaries or wages.’ [34] The TUC General Council entered the scene on 20 August at a joint meeting between Labour’s national executive and government representatives.

The Labour executive’s unanimous message to the government was summed up by the Daily Herald headline: ‘“We leave it all to you” say leaders.’ [3*] [35] But the TUC resisted government pressure, partly because it retained links with workers’ collective organisation and because it believed in an alternative means of curing capitalism.

The constituency parties, the Labour executive and the PLP, which existed merely as the means to winning government office, were impotent spectators throughout. The TUC and cabinet were the sole protagonists because they alone had independent bases.

In the battle for the allegiance of the party, the TUC proved the strongest. Its influence derived in part from its financial contributions to the party (three-quarters of receipts in 1930) and sponsorship of MPs. When these factors combined with MacDonald’s desertion, the national executive and parliamentary party were persuaded almost unanimously to follow the General Council line. But we are running ahead.

On Friday, 21 August, the TUC suggested economies based on ‘equality of sacrifice’:

  1. Unemployment insurance to be paid for by a graduated levy on profits, incomes and earnings;
  2. Securities and other unearned income to be taxed;
  3. Payments on the ‘Sinking Fund’ by which the National Debt was paid off should be suspended.

The cabinet answered that ‘no Government worthy of the name could for one instance submit to dictation from an outside body.’ [36] It did not see the run on the pound as financial dictation, only the TUC’s defence of the millions who had elected Labour in the first place. So the cabinet threw out the whole TUC package. The third point alone – the suspension of Sinking Fund payments of £50 million a year to moneylenders – was worth more than twice the government’s intended savings on dole payments.

At this stage extraordinary events began to unfold which showed where real power lies in bourgeois democracy. The cabinet first went cap in hand to the parliamentary representatives of big business – the Tories and Liberals – to ask whether a 10 per cent dole cut would satisfy them. The reply was that the bankers were the ones to see. So Labour humbly turned to the Bank of England. According to the cabinet minute:

It was in the Deputy Governor’s view essential, particularly from the point of view of the foreign interests concerned, that very substantial economies should be effected on the Unemployment Insurance ... and he reported the view of a distinguished and very friendly foreign financier [!] on the vital need for securing budget equilibrium. [37]

However the deputy governor of the Bank of England would not make a final decision. Mr Harrison of the American Federal Reserve Bank had to be consulted. When his turn came in this merry-go-round he said he would have to consult New York financial interests. And so it went on.

One cabinet minister described the situation in this way:

One of the memories that abides with me, and I hope I shall never forget it, is that of twenty men and one woman, representing the government of this country, standing one black Sunday evening in the Downing Street garden awaiting a cable from New York as to whether the pound was to be saved or not, and whether the condition would be insisted upon that the unemployed would be cut 10 per cent. [38]

At last the replies came in. World capitalism used its various mouthpieces to say that big business did not care a damn about elections, manifesto promises or the unemployed, since it had the power to make or break governments at will. As a token of good intent towards the wealthy it demanded an immediate and swingeing attack on the most underprivileged section of society. If Labour could pull it off without any opposition then all well and good, but if there should be any hint of dissent that might encourage mass resistance, then harder-line politicians would have to move in.

On Sunday night Beatrice Webb reported in her diary: ‘So it is the financiers, British and American, who will settle the personnel and the policy of the British government. Sidney hopes that they will decide against the Labour Cabinet remaining in office ... The dictatorship of the capitalist with a vengeance!’ [39]

The actual outcome was unexpected. That night the cabinet voted by some eleven or twelve votes to eight or nine (the size of the majority is disputed) in favour of a 10 per cent cut in unemployment benefit. This was made in the full knowledge that, as MacDonald told the meeting: ‘the proposals as a whole represented the negation of everything that the Labour Party stood for.’ [40] A narrow majority was not enough, however. The bankers had made it clear that the government in its entirety must join in or, as MacDonald warned: ‘If on this question there were any important resignations, the Government as a whole must resign.’ Having failed to secure unanimity MacDonald ended the Labour government there and then.


Since 1931 a myth has been sedulously fostered according to which Labour fought the cuts and left office rather than carry them out. The truth was not that Labour drove out MacDonald, but that he evicted them from the cabinet even though the majority accepted his programme. This can be substantiated in two ways. Firstly, it was MacDonald who decided that the government was resigning. As the king’s private secretary recorded:

The Prime Minister ... told the King that all was up and that at the Cabinet eleven had voted for accepting the terms of the Bankers and eight against ... In these circumstances the Prime Minister had no alternative than to tender the resignation of the Cabinet. [41]

Secondly, a number of different writers corroborate Kirkwood’s assessment that if MacDonald had wished to do so he might have taken the Labour Party with him in imposing cuts:

Of one thing, however, I feel certain. If Ramsay MacDonald had come to a meeting of his Party and told them his views and invited them to join him in creating a National Government most of then would have agreed ... [42]

Instead, out of the four renegade ministers only the least important – Sankey – attended this meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party and put up a lame defence.

There is one farther method to establish the truth about Labour’s attitude to the dole cut – by measuring its resistance to the economy package when this was introduced. The justification for a campaign of mass extra-Parliamentary activity was obvious. As Miliband puts it:

Given the fact that Britain was in 1931 one of the richest countries in the world, and blessed with one of the richest ruling classes the world, it is surely amazing that there were actually found ration men to argue that the saving of a few million pounds a year on the miserable pittances allowed to unemployed men and women and their children was the essential condition of British solvency. [43]

Needless to say Labour did nothing positive to fight back, even though the unemployed were themselves far from passive. On 7 October 50,000 rioted in Glasgow; the next day 30,000 did likewise did in Manchester, and the day after 60,000 in Glasgow. [44] The Daily Herald was pathetic. In 1930 it had attacked the Communists for organising the unemployed movement:

Only the reckless and heartless would accept responsibility dragging through the streets crowds of men and women, many of them badly clothed and fed and the great majority totally unfit march ... And it becomes essentially objectionable since no useful end can be attained. [45]

In spite of all that had happened 1931, the paper’s line maintained Unchanged: ‘The remedy is in [the unemployed’s] hand not in rioting and futile demonstrations, not in pointless collisions with the police (who are also victims) but is a determined effort to win the election for Labour.’ [46] Even the mildest action was condemned. Teachers resisting a 15 per cent pay cut were criticised for a ban on ‘out-of-school oversight of children’s games’. The Daily Herald urged them: ‘to rescind the resolution and ... rely on the polls ... to help them secure justice.’ [47]

Fortunately, there were better ways than waiting fourteen years for the next Labour administration. The best opportunity to roll back the ruling-class offensive came with the Invergordon mutiny of 15 September 193l. 12,000 seamen, some of them threatened with a 25 per cent cut in pay, refused to obey orders. When the issue was raised in parliament the official Labour spokesman said the mutiny was: ‘a matter of extreme regret [and] created a dangerous precedent.’ [48] The mutiny proceeded nonetheless, with instant success. Within days the financial panic it caused demolished the Gold Standard, the measure which had caused deflation and on whose altar the miners had been sacrificed in 1926. And on 21 September the National Government’ ‘discovered’ that there were ‘just’ grievances to be answered. The wage cuts for teachers, police and the armed services were greatly reduced. [49]

Labour’s resistance to economies was not held by Snowden rightly claiming that ‘nine-tenths of the [National Government’s] economies ... were adopted and approved by the late government’. [50] The October election brought further humiliation:

Labour votes in elections 1900–1929







450,000 (the average of two elections)


2.2 million


4.2 million


4.3 million


5.5 million


8.4 million


6.6 million [4*]

What felt worse than the loss of almost a quarter of the Labour vote was reduction to 46 seats in parliament and the ignominious end of the first generation of Labour leaders. Not just the renegades to the right, but Henderson, Clynes, Webb and many more were finished politically. The Second Labour government broke thirty years of reformist continuity and the pattern of relentless growth. Sidney Webb’s phrase – ‘the inevitability of gradualness’ – suddenly rang hollow.

The Labour Party did its best to cover up the degree to which Henderson, Graham and the other ministers had gone along with the cuts. At the party conference in October 1931 the chairman begged for all present to ‘refrain from recriminations’. [51] The executive’s conference report spent just half a p. dealing with the collapse of the government. Some delegates pleaded in vain for a proper account of this most momentous event. But so derisory was support for a reference back that a card vote was deemed unnecessary.

There were a number of explanations for the extraordinary turn of events. The official Labour version had it that everything was plotted, perhaps months or years in advance, by Ramsay MacDonald. Sidney Webb described the collapse as ‘a single drama, in all its developments foreseen in advance-only by the statesman who was at once its author, its producer, and its principal actor.’ [52]

It was true that thirty years of playing the parliamentary game had turned MacDonald and his National Government cronies into renegades. At the height of the crisis MacDonald told his daughter that ‘all this sentimentality about workers is trash [and] the unemployed must sacrifice too’ [53], and boasted: ‘tomorrow every Duchess in London will be wanting to kiss me!’ [54] Snowden may have been influenced by his wife who said ‘she needs no friends because she is so intimate with the royal family’ [55], and so on. Yet that was hardly an adequate analysis of the crisis, nor could it show how such characters could rule the party for years.

In reality, the collapse resulted from capitalist pressure and the failure of reformism. Labour had always told voters that the interests of workers could be advanced within the framework of capitalism. As the economic crisis grew deeper the appeals to keep that framework going grew louder. In 1931 the latent conflict between the needs of capital and workers became open.

The demise of the second Labour government proved beyond any doubt that reformism cannot work when capitalism is in crisis. No national capitalist state can long defy the power of capitalism any reformist administration that tries to is doomed to be tom apart by the contradictions of its situation. The synthesis of class and nation, which reformism represents, simply cracks under the strain.

The political beliefs that led inexorably to 1931 were expressed by Snowden the year before:

Some people call themselves Socialists and talk about the overthrow of the capitalist system. Arrant nonsense! What we had to do is not to overthrow the capitalist system, but to transform the capitalist system. [56]

The starting point for reformism was a healthy capitalist system.

One Labour MP grasped the fall import of what happened in 1931. While Labour was still in office, W.J. Brown warned that the leadership’s policy:

struck at the very root of the whole philosophy of constitutional and peaceful progression ... The essence of the idea upon which this party has been built is the idea that, if you could acquire sufficient political power in this House, you could ... gradually transform our state of society into a new state ... The Chancellor’s speech today represents the complete destruction of that aim. [57]

Marx had looked to the workers’ movement as ‘the gravedigger of capitalism’. It was obvious that Labour saw itself as the doctor whose duty was to cure capitalism.

The contradictions of reformism which wrecked the second Labour government are linked to contradictions in capitalism. Reformism grew from a specific set of circumstances – a degree of balance between the working class and capitalists which allowed a relative truce in the class war. Through this there emerged the labour bureaucracy, to negotiate, politically and industrially, the terms of armistice. In 1931 the balancing act came to an end. But this did not mean the end of reformist consciousness.

In a crisis, neither the bureaucracy nor reformist ideas simply evaporated. Both endured so long as workers lacked confidence in their own power. Labour retained strong working class support, even when no reforms could be delivered.

Nevertheless, the crisis had profound effects. For those on the periphery of the Labour Party, reformism lost its attraction – since it was unable to counter the arguments of the outright defenders of capitalism. Outside its core support the Labour vote declined.

In 1931 there were three avenues open to Labour. One was to abandon reformism and shift to the right, as MacDonald and Co did when they formed the National Government. Another was to abandon reformism by shifting to the left and adopting a revolutionary outlook. There was no automatic swing in this direction since the general mood of the class was defensive and the Communist Party was on an ultra-left binge. The third was to hold on to reformism in its decaying, unstable form. This course was adopted by the majority of the working class, who now clung more desperately to Labour as the solution to their problems.


1*. A sign of Labour’s attitude was the fact that only 6 per cent of its 1929 election addresses mentioned socialism, while 43 per cent of the Conservatives did so (to attack it of course). [5]

2*. It was ironic that the very first justification the Tory Government found in 1926 for the Trades Disputes Act came from a book by Henry Slesser, Labour’s legal counsel. [13]

3*. Indeed the executive did not meet again until 26 August, after the National Government was formed. Nor did it hold meetings to cope with the approaching crisis. Thus the only previous discussion on rising unemployment and possible problems was on 25 November 1930, when the executive took steps to discipline W.J. Brown, an MP who had publicly stated that unemployment was losing Labour votes. Just as in 1926 the party’s national executive, as distinct from the PLP, was stone dead in the midst of major events.

4*. It is important to note that this drop was not simply the result of the August 1931 crisis or the smear tactics of Snowden, who viciously turned on the party which had brought him to prominence. By-elections in March and June had already shown a catastrophic decline in the Labour vote. In May for example, the majority in St Rollox (Glasgow) fell from 8,000 to 1,382, in Rutherglen from 5,000 to 683 and in Gateshead from 16,000 to 1,392!


1. S. Webb, What Happened in 1931, in Political Quarterly (1932), p. 1.

2. Quoted in R. Bassett, 1931: Political Crisis (London 1986), p. 424.

3. Labour Conference 1928, p. 100.

4.Wheatley, speaking at Labour Conference 1928, p. 212.

5. Knox, p. 83.

6. Quoted in Daily Herald, 7 June 1929.

7. Hugh Dalton quoted in Hutt, p. 196.

8. Robert Boothby, in Hansard, 4 July 1929.

9. J.R. Clynes, home secretary, in Hansard, 24 July 1929.

10. Labour and the Nation. (London 1928), p. 16 (emphasis added).

11. Labour Conference 1930, p. 173.

12. Mowat, p. 365.

13. For details see H. Slesser, Judgement Reserved (London 1941), pp. 60 and 157.

14. Labour Conference 1927, p. 255.

15. Fenner Brockway, in Hansard, 26 May 1930.

16. R. Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump (Harmondsworth 1970), pp. 398–9.

17. S. Lawrence, in Labour Conference 1930, p. 153.

18. Cab. 26(30), 8 May 1930.

19. J.R. Clynes Quoted in Daily Herald, 10 January 1931.

20. Hansard, 2 December 1929.

21. Speaking at the Oxford Union Society, 5 June 1930, quoted in W. Hannington, Unemployed Struggles (London 1977), p. 211.

22. Quoted in Gross, p. 244.

23. Quoted in G. Foote, The Labour Party’s Political Thought (London 1986), p. 53.

24. Hansard, 31 March 1931.

25. Quoted in Jones, Vol.  2, p. 264 (entry for 4 June 1930).

26. Reported by Nicholson, p. 461.

27. Lansbury Papers, quoted in Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump, p. 268.

28. Hansard, 11 February 1931.

29. Daily Herald, 17 February 1931.

30. Mowat, p. 379.

31. Hansard, 7 April 1931.

32. Hansard, 19 May 1931.

33. Quoted in R. McKibbin, The Economic Policy of the Second Labour Government, in Past and Present, August 1976, p. 120.

34. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 4, p. 252.

35. Daily Herald, 21 August 1931.

36. Reported by Nicholson, p. 459.

37. Cab. 43(31), 21 August 1931.

38. Johnston quoted in MacNeill Weir, p. 407.

39. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 4 (entry for 23 August 1931).

40. Cab. 46(310), 23 August 1931.

41. Quoted in Nicolson, p. 464.

42. Kirkwood, p. 248.

43. Miliband, p. 185.

44. See Hannington, pp. 219–230, for a thrilling account of agitation.

45. Daily Herald, 21 February 1930.

46. Daily Herald, 15 October 1931.

47. Daily Herald, 3 October 1931.

48. C.G. Ammon quoted in Daily Herald, 23 September 1931.

49. Details in Clegg and others, p. 519, and A. Ereira, The Invergordon Mutiny (London 1981).

50. Quoted in Bassett, p. 224.

51. Labour Conference, p. 155.

52. S. Webb, in Political Quarterly, p. 1.

53. Quoted in Marquand, pp. 630–1.

54. Quoted in Snowden, Vol. 2, p. 957.

55. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 4, p. 216 (entry for 19 May 1930).

56. Hansard, 16 April 1930.

57. Hansard, 11 February 1931.

Last updated on 5 March 2017