Review: When Labour was new

Review: When Labour was new

The centenary this year of the first Labour government will doubtless see the publication of a number of new books analysing a game-changing event. Robert Shiels reviews one of the first, by Scottish journalist David Torrance.

In 1923 the immediate consequences of an inconclusive general election suggested the prospect of a constitutional crisis, with many fearing the emergence of what was perceived widely as extreme politics that threatened everything.

The Labour Party, nevertheless, took power as a minority government. The office-holders appointed then came from very different elements of society to those to be expected in the ordinary course of politics down to that point.

Not only were the members of the new government generally from working-class backgrounds but they also came from geographical areas of the United Kingdom that had not then provided many, or perhaps any, prime ministers, secretaries of state or other members of the executive of a government.

The Wild Men narrates in an interesting and easy manner a general political history of the United Kingdom and also explains through short biographical chapters the roles and achievements of key individuals in the government. The party was in power for just less than a year.

It is astonishing to consider even now that James Ramsay MacDonald managed the government through the office of prime minister, and also held concurrently the post of foreign secretary. That ordeal was for a year and it understandably affected his health and general morale.

The government ended in December 1924 and in the general election the Labour Party support in the House of Commons went down from 193 to 151 MPs. Paradoxically, the total national vote for the Labour Party had increased.

In later generations there was bitter internal criticism from Labour Party members as to the actions of Ramsay MacDonald and his government, and the failures to either make the most of some opportunities to advance socialism, or at least to introduce more radical measures.

As David Torrance argues cogently in conclusion, the reality was that despite a paucity of experience the party showed that it could govern, and change might come while maintaining a stability and continuity of authority.

The Wild Men: the Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government by David Torrance. Published by Bloomsbury, 415 pp.

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