Labour emerged as an independent political party with the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 and proceeded to win two seats in Parliament. 1 Following an electoral pact organised by James Ramsay MacDonald, secretary of the LRC, and Herbert Gladstone of the Liberal party, Labour secured 30 seats in 1906, the year of the Liberal landslide. These were increased in January 1910 to 40 and in December to 42. The breakthrough, however, came in the First World War, for reasons given in Chapter 3. In 1918 Labour increased their tally to 63 seats and the support of 22.2 per cent of a greatly enlarged electorate; by 1922 this had become 142 (29.5 per cent). The bulk of these votes came from trade union members recently enfranchised and newly affiliated to the Labour party (4.32 million by 1920). 2 Between 1918 and 1922 the party also won 14 by-elections and augmented its parliamentary experience and performance. Following the election called in 1923 by the Conservative prime minister Baldwin, Labour found itself with 191 seats and an unexpected opportunity of political power.
This chapter looks at four main issues relating to a young party's first experience of government. First, it examines the circumstances in which Labour was able to take office and the degree to which it was prepared for it. It then considers Labour's achievements at home and abroad, explaining why Labour's measures were less radical than many expected. Third, it reviews the party's internal deficiencies which, together with external pressures and intrusions, help explain why Labour's first experience of power was so short-lived. Finally, it considers the significance of this experience and of the sweeping electoral impact of the 1924 general election.