Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867-1974

By James Hinton | Go to book overview
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8
Labour Government and General Strike, 1924-31

In 1924 the Labour Party formed its first Government. This, and the subsequent experience of office in 1929-31, was to prove more threatening to the unity and coherence of the labour movement than any of the upheavals or defeats of the previous decade. The enthusiasm with which Labour politicians in the 1920s accepted the offer of probationary membership of the political elite prefigured the even more disastrous experiences of the 1960s and 1970s. The established partnership between a reformist Labour Party and an economistic trade unionism entered a state of acute crisis as soon as Labour's access to state power put that partnership to the test. It took the ousting of Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first Prime Minister, and the virtual take-over of the Party by the General Council of the TUC in the early 1930s to repair the resulting damage to the unity of the movement. As subsequent experience was to confirm all too clearly, the entry into government spelt doom for the labour movement.


I

In 1923 Stanley Baldwin, who had played a decisive role in the break-up of Lloyd George's coalition in the previous year, led the Conservatives into a general election on the issue of Tariff Reform. The Conservatives lost their overall majority in the Commons and Labour emerged as the second largest party. It was the well-founded confidence of most of the established political leaders in the political moderation of Labour under MacDonald that allowed Labour to form its first Government early in 1924 -- only a minority of Conservatives felt that the socialist menace justified the re-establishment of a Liberal--Conservative coalition to keep Labour out.

The Labour leadership saw their first experience of office as an opportunity, not to polarise politics by courting defeat on major issues of principle, but to demonstrate their capacity to govern

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