Punch and Judy Politics: A 1920s Retrospective

By Toye, Richard | Renewal, Autumn-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Punch and Judy Politics: A 1920s Retrospective


Toye, Richard, Renewal


In his first speech as Conservative Party leader in 2005, David Cameron pledged to put an end to 'the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing' (Cameron, 2005). In 2008 - having recently branded Gordon Brown 'a loser, not a leader' - he admitted to Radio 4's Today programme that he had failed. He said: 'I will absolutely hold up my hands and say this is a promise I have not been able to deliver'. He explained his jibe at Brown by saying that he had been 'very angry' - clearly something that he had never anticipated happening to him when he became Leader of the Opposition. He added: 'I take a robust approach. I don't make any apology for that' (Kirkup, 2008).

It is easy to mock the double standard: 'You engage in Punch and Judy politics; I am very angry and make no apology for being robust'. But this will only take us so far, given that similar double standards have been operated by other politicians and parties in the past. Rowdy opposition techniques have not been the exclusive preserve of the Conservatives, any more than of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party. Moreover, 'Punch and Judy politics' - when described in those or similar terms - is widely assumed to be a bad thing (see e.g. Finkelstein, 2011). But is that necessarily the case, and what can the current Labour Opposition learn from the past history of parliamentary name calling, backbiting, point scoring, and finger pointing?

Labour in the 1920s

The topic is an enormous one. For our purposes, it will be convenient to focus on Labour's periods of Opposition in the 1920s. This was a time when the Party's disruptive parliamentary tactics were a matter of much political controversy. It was also a time of considerable Labour electoral success. In 1922 Labour won enough seats to become the official Opposition. By 1924, after a further election, it was in a position to form a minority government, with Ramsay MacDonald as the first Labour Prime Minister. Although it fell from office later the same year, in 1929 the Party again won enough seats to form a government, albeit once more without a majority.

Of course, the Party's success in these years was only of a very qualified form. The first two Labour governments were weak, and the financial crisis of 1931 split the Party and condemned it to a long period in the wilderness. However, MacDonald did appeal successfully to the centre ground during the twenties, contesting the Conservatives' claims to be the true custodians of British values. Although he himself was reviled by his former party for joining up with Conservatives and Liberals to form the so-called 'National Government' as a result of the crisis, his earlier efforts to give Labour a cross-class appeal were the basis of a strategy that was re-learnt by Attlee in the run-up to 1945. That helps explain why Ed Miliband's Marxist father Ralph, in his influential book Parliamentary Socialism, dubbed the post-1931 period of Labour history 'MacDonaldism without MacDonald' (Miliband, 1972).

Miliband Senior's comment was part of a broader critique of a Labour Party that had, in his view, condemned itself to futility by its dogmatic commitment to reformist parliamentary methods. Whether or not subsequent historians have shared the view that parliamentarism was futile, they have generally agreed that MacDonald himself was the epitome of moderate respectability. For example, Laura Beers has written recently that 'the hysterical representation of socialist politics by Labour's opponents helped to reinforce pre-existing tendencies towards gradualism, parliamentarism and financial orthodoxy within the movement, as party and trade union leaders shied away from policies and actions which could be presented as reckless or unconstitutional' (Beers, 2009, 233).

This is all true - as far as it goes. But it fails to do complete justice to MacDonald's political technique. …

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