Thursday 12 May 2011

Why George Lansbury wasn't Labour's greatest leader

"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"
- George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party, message to the voters in the Fulham East by-election, June 1933.

"This day I believe – 1 October 1935 – is a watershed moment in the history of the party ... The removal of Lansbury in 1935 marked the fundamental change in the character of political leadership. The victory of the pragmatists and political operators over the prophets of Labour"
- Jon Cruddas, tribute to George Lansbury, May 2011.

An intriguing part of the Blue Labour project is its wish to make a new interrogation of the party's history part of the contemporary argument about the party's mission and identity. But with a twist. For the target often seems to be less New Labour's conscious choice of modernising amnesia - "forward, not back", so to speak - but rather an attempt to disrupt and overturn many of the shared narratives and understandings of Labour's history which much of the party continues to cherish.

The Labour party's proudest moments and its most sacred myths arise out of the 1945 landslide. It is a proud, patriotic story - "Now win the peace" - of how the country thanked and threw out Churchill, so that promises of a people's peace which had been dishonoured after 1918 were this time kept, so that wartime solidarity, contrasted with the memories of unemployment and appeasement of the 1930s, could be parlayed into the commitment to protect each other from the worst risks in life, through the National Health Service, welfare state, and a broader vision of a fairer and more equal Britain.

The most eye-catching heresy in Blue Labour's revisionist challenge is to refuse allegiance to Labour's finest hour under Major Attlee, instead regarding this as the moment where it all went wrong. The aim is not only to reconnect Labour to its own traditions, a laudable project for sure, but also to disrupt and disconnect the party from the currently dominant narrative, dethroning Attlee and Bevan, to replace a celebration of their contribution with an alternative mythology of paths not followed.

This may be part of what lies behind Jon Cruddas making perhaps the most daring attempt yet to manufacture some new blue Labour myths to challenge Labour's existing shared understandings of our history as a movement.

In his heartfelt tribute to George Lansbury last weekend, Cruddas makes a laudable and elegant plea for Lansbury to be better remembered as a great prophet of the Labour pantheon. Cruddas goes on to make the quixotic and implausible claim that Lansbury was Labour's greatest leader, and extends this through the indefensible argument that Labour should regard the day he lost the leadership as a tragic turning point in the history of the party and movement.

The Cruddas tribute to Lansbury is a moving one, made with great verve and rhetorical elegance. But I can not see how he could choose to be more wrong in his argument about 1st October 1935 being a dark day when Labour set out on the wrong path.

Cruddas eloquently sets out many reasons to remember Lansbury better. But the expression of regret at his being dispatched as leader in 1934 could, if taken seriously, hardly have more appalling consequences.

Cruddas is right that Lansbury has been unfairly neglected in the party's popular memory. It took more than half a century for a full biography to be published. His life is a remarkable tale in so many ways. Lansbury was jailed twice for his political convictions, over female suffrage in 1912 and in his coup de theatre when refusing to set a rate in Poplar in 1921. As a campaigner against the hated Poor Laws, he was one of the Royal Commission minority who famously advocated the Minority Report on the Poor Law, which laid the foundations of the Beveridge welfare state (though Cruddas more than stretches a point in wanting to write Lansbury back into that history in claiming that he, rather than the Webbs, should be regarded as its primary author).

Lansbury was always prepared to articulate unpopular, minority causes, and to stick to them, whatever the political consequences. It is more difficult to make a case for him as a great political strategist, with many setbacks too, such as when he resigned his seat to force a by-election over votes for women in 1912, and lost it!

Lansbury had the courage of his sincere convictions when he was a brilliant and lonely pioneer of what we would all now see as simple justice and common sense. He also had the courage of his sincere convictions too when he was catastrophically wrong about the most important issue of the age, leading inevitably to Lansbury's defenestration, which Cruddas says he sees as a cause of enduring and existential historic regret.


However much plotting took place under Attlee, Wilson, Blair and Brown, George Lansbury remains the only Labour leader ever directly removed in the party's history, stabbed in the front in open daylight by Ernie Bevin at the 1935 Labour Party conference. Bevin's immediate cause could hardly have been more important - and it was incredibly important for Labour as a party that could ever aspire to be trusted to govern that he did so.

Lansbury's deep Christian pacifist convictions were absolute. So Lansbury absolutely opposed to the position of the Labour party and the TUC, which was that its support for the League of Nations, collective security and peace, had to mean support for sanctions against Mussolini's Italy and its brutal annexation by war of Abyssinia.

As Ben Pimlott explains in his great biography of Hugh Dalton, events had meant that Labour could no longer paper over a fundamental difference of views through a compromise formula.

"In 1933 Labour was essentially a pacifist party. By the end of 1937 it had become a party that believed in armed deterrence, a party that urged collective security through the League of Nations and a party that bitterly opposed Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. The architect of this remarkable change was Hugh Dalton.

Labour's official position in the aftermath of the 1931 election was the same as before it: the policy of Henderson and Dalton as the Foreign Office during the second Labour administration. Officially, the Labour party stood for multilateral disarmament by negotiated agreement, and security on the basis of the League of Nations Covenant. Unofficially, large sections of Labour opinion were opposed to the use of force under any circumstances. Non-pacifists and pacifists could cautiously agree on the official formula, even though it held out the possibility of the use of force - so long as the danger that force might actually be used remained remote. When Hitler came to power, however, this fragile unity quickly collapsed. The threat of military sanctions by member nations against an aggressor, laid down in the League Charter, suddenly acquired a new importance, dividing those who supported it from those who did not"

A coherent case for pacifism (as policy) is so much harder to make after the knowledge of the holocaust. But it is not difficult to understand the earlier appeal of pacifism in the early 1930s, with the echoes of the Great War still so loud in public consciousness. It was a decade when there were perhaps more Middle England votes in pacifism than rearmament. (Lansbury's greatest electoral achievement had come at the 1933 Fulham East by-election, a few months after Hitler's election, fought on a peace ticket following Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations. There was a massive swing to Labour. It was that by-election which helped to convince Baldwin that there could be no public support for rearmament, leading Churchill to include his famous diary index indictment of "Baldwin, Stanley, admits putting party before country". Baldwin's policy also reduced the issue of arms as an issue of electoral controversy. It would now be contested within parties, in the House of Commons, where Labour's new position ultimately facilitated the crucial alliance with Churchill's Tory mavericks).

But, as the nature and intentions of fascism became clearer, this was emerging as the great existential question of the 1930s. It really mattered to Labour's core identity and mission what response it chose.

So Lansbury had to go. He knew it. His MPs knew it. The conference and the trade unions knew it. That Lansbury was a willing victim of what Ben Pimlott has called his "ritual martyrdom" means that Cruddas can score a point about the dignity of the process in his objection to the brutal vigour of Bevin's famous attack. What matters more is that Bevin was right about the issue, and taking an absolutely vital step to making Labour anything like fit for power. (Incidentally, and perhaps in partial defence of Bevin, Lansbury's preferred successor was not Attlee, but Stafford Cripps, even though he had already resigned because he could not support sanctions against Italy).


A secondary myth required to elevate Lansbury to the very greatest of Labour leaders is Cruddas' suggestion that there was the "possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury".

The election of a pacifist Labour prime minister in 1935 would not have heralded a golden epoch for either country or party, but the problems of this fantastical scenario can be easily avoided, since I don't think any historian or politician has ever before seriously suggested that Labour could have won a majority in 1935.

Lansbury had secured Labour's status as Her Majesty's Opposition, as Cruddas reports, though the chances of a Liberal revival were already very slim. Having won just 52 seats in 1931, the party built on Lansbury's achievements to make 100 gains under Attlee's apparently caretaker leadership to advance to 154 seats in 1935 left the National Government with a massive, but reduced, majority. Labour might have hoped to win as many as 200 seats but there is no plausible case that being led by Lansbury would not only have won a few more of the urban seats which were the basis of Labour's recovery, but also been able to sweep away more than 150 other Tories and Liberals across the land.

In any event, surely what Cruddas finds attractive in Lansbury is surely not that he could have been Labour's greatest Prime Minister. The appeal is of a poet and a prophet, a man who could never have been Prime Minister. Lansbury was the closest thing Labour had to a Gandhi, as Attlee once remarked, thinking of this as a somewhat mixed blessing. (Gandhi knew he could never have been prime minister of India too).

Lansbury was an accidental leader, like Attlee after him, who had office thrust upon him. Unlike Attlee, he was never cut out for the leadership role. His inspirational contributions lay elsewhere, though the project to rehabilitate Lansbury will always be at least somewhat checked by how he, after being leader, remained a sincere and naive prophet of a disastrous cause. The Peace Pledge Union offers this account of Lansbury's exhaustive programme of visits to both democrats and dictators, seeking to persuade them not to go to war.

One of the few politicians ever formally to move withholding all money from the armed forces, and thereby to abolish them, Lansbury embarked on an arduous series of visits, under the name Embassies of Reconciliation, in which he talked not only to the heads of almost every democratic government in Europe, but also to the more autocratic heads of state in the Balkans and to the dictators Hitler and Mussolini. He went to President Roosevelt in the USA. He never gave up hope that by talking to each other, ideally in a formal conference, the world's leaders could avert war. Though this was not to be, his influence did secure the release of a few political prisoners in the totalitarian states.

The Peace Pledge Union pursued peace and appeasement well beyond Munich. Along with the British Union of Fascists, with which it formed an alliance on this issue, its Peace News paper became a prominent outlet arguing that German territorial demands were reasonable and should be conceded peacefully. The PPU took this well beyond advocating giving Hitler the Sudetenland at Munich. The PPU also divided the pacifist movement when it published Bloomsbury artist Clive Bell's pamphlet 'Warmongers', which proposed a 'Pax Germanica' in which Germany should be permitted to 'absorb' France, Poland, the Low Countries and the Balkans to keep the peace.


The most important achievement, in power, of the British Labour party. It was not what the party thinks: the creation of the still cherished NHS.

Rather, it was insisting that Britain rejected Mussolini’s offer to negotiate peace with Hitler in 1940, choosing to insist instead on the second world war being fought.

And this was a much, much closer thing than our sacred, but sanitised, mythology of national anti-fascist unity likes to remember, and that is why Labour’s role was so crucial.

After the fall of Norway, the Labour opposition had insisted on Chamberlain’s resignation as the necessary foundation of a wartime national unity coalition. It was more a matter of luck than design that Churchill, rather than Lord Halifax, got the nod. But, still, Churchill was opposed within his five man war cabinet by both of his fellow Tories, ex-PM Neville Chamberlain and his pro-appeasement ally, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax when Mussolini offered to negotiate.

Peter Hennessy tells the story in Never Again:

At least one member of the War Cabinet thought that disaster and grief might be avoided if the British took up the Italians' offer to mediate as a step towards negotiated peace. He was Lord Halifax. 'We must not ignore the fact' Halifax told his colleagues, 'that we might get better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed than we might get in three months time'.

Churchill would have none of it ... Halifax persisted ... Chamberlain, a sick man but still a member of the War Cabinet, kept the old appeasement duo in business by saying he didn't see 'what we should lose if we openly said that, while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us. Churchill countered with the view that the chances of being offered decent terms were a thousand to one against, and 'national which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished'

At this stage, it was two for mediation, one against. Everything would turn on the Labour members of the War Cabinet, Attlee and Greenwood. They did not hesitate. Attlee backed Churchill unequivocally. If negotiations began 'we should find it impossible to rally the morale of the people'. Greenwood said the industrial areas of Britain (which returned a preponderance of Labour MPs) 'would regard anything like weakening on the part of the government as a disaster.

All in all, it took two hours to reach the decision to fight on; the most crucial two hours in modern Cabinet history"

It is that turning point in British and Labour history that should be better known and celebrated, rather than regretting the necessary defenestration of George Lansbury that led to it. For, of course, the Labour party's choice on 1st October 1935 was the foundation of its essential contribution in government not even five years later on the 28th May 1940.

It is from that moment in 1940 that the great Labour myths of 1945 should properly be traced.

These have been too powerful to ignore, even by those who sometimes seemed to wish that the party had sprung fully born, without any roots at all, into this new millennium. It was striking that New Labour simply didn't know what to do with the party's centenary in 2000. But Tony Blair could certainly not resist celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1945 General Election and of the creation of the National Health Service in 1995 and 1998. He claimed for New Labour those moments which most root proud, patriotic, egalitarian Labour, in touch with the hopes and aspirations of both the working-classes and the middle classes, in the British national story.

The 1945 landslide may indeed have been a very Fabian moment, but that is little reason for the Labour tradition not to celebrate its enduring achievements.

There are many fascinating and fraternal debates to be had about competing Labour traditions which help to form the plural alliances of a broad movement. All power to those who wish to celebrate neglected figures and strands, as Blue Labour and other fellow travellers seek to do. Blue Labour, of all projects, will perhaps be best placed to understand and indeed to feel why many in the Labour party may seek to resist any attempt to dispossess us of true stories which have become constitutive of the history and identity of our party and movement.


Rob Marchant said...

Sunder, well said indeed. Lansbury was a disastrous leader. I would say an unwise choice for Blue Labour.

Rory said...

Completely agree, very interesting indeed. Perhaps our first leader Keir Hardie would be a wiser choice for a Blue Labour figurehead?

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