Tuesday, December 04, 2007

When Labour was a party of principle

This article of mine, on the days when the Labour Party occupied the moral high ground in British politics, appears in today's Morning Star.

In all its 101-year history, has the Labour Party ever been held in such contempt by ordinary people as it is today?

In the last ten years, Labour has taken us into a succession of illegal wars of aggression and made our country even more of a US lapdog than it was under the Tories.

It has extended -not reversed privatisation- and presided over a massive rise in inequality.

Instead of sticking up for ordinary working people, Labour has shamelessly courted the very rich- people like the millionaire property developer David Abrahams- whose donations to the party have caused such a scandal.

How far Labour has descended into the gutter since the times when it could genuinely be said to occupy the high ground in British politics.

Seventy-five years ago, as now, Labour had a new leader. But unlike the change from Blair to Brown, in which one pro-war, pro-big business neoliberal was exchanged for another, the change from Arthur Henderson to George Lansbury (above) in 1932 marked a real turning point.

Lansbury’s accession to his party’s leadership at the age of 73 came as a consequence of the treacherous defection to a new Tory-dominated ‘National Government’ by Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald in 1931.

Many predicted that the split would finish Labour for good: in fact it was the making of it.

The expulsion of phoney leftists like Macdonald, Jimmy Thomas and the ‘Iron Chancellor’ Philip Snowden, who, like their New Labour counterparts sixty years later, put the interests of capital over the interests of ordinary people, meant that Labour was once again a party of the left, determined to advance the interests of the working class. And in Lansbury they had a leader who made no apologies about being a socialist desirous of radical change.

By the time he became Labour leader, Lansbury, who had left school at 14 to unload coal trucks, had spent almost forty years fighting for progressive causes. He was a man of incredible courage and took a principled stance on all the great issues of the day, regardless of the personal consequences.

Elected MP for Bow and Stepney in 1910 he gave up his seat in order to fight a by-election in support of women’s suffrage. He lost and was out of parliament for ten years.

Three years later he was charged with sedition for exhorting a crowd at the Royal Albert Hall to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the Suffragetes and imprisoned in Pentonville jail.

Together with other councillors, he went to prison again in 1921, after Poplar council dispersed tax monies to the poor instead of setting a ‘legal’ rate. He defended the authors of the ‘Don’t Shoot’ pamphlet, sent out to soldiers called into deal with striking workers and was also a supporter of Irish independence and the Russian Revolution.

Lansbury’s Labour Party adopted a number of left-wing policies, including nationalisation of the banks and worker control of nationalised industries. The party was no longer interested in the tinkering with capitalist system; a motion passed at the 1932 party conference said that the next Labour government must introduce “definite Socialist legislation immediately”.

On foreign affairs, Lansbury’s message was unequivocally anti-war and anti-militarist: Lansbury himself was a convinced pacifist who had strongly opposed World War One. If he became Prime Minister, he once famously said, “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". The use of force was anathema to him: “War becomes more bestial, more sickening every day. Christ said that we had to love one another. I cannot believe that Christ ... for any reason or any cause would be found pouring bombs and poison gas on women, on children or men for any reason whatsoever”.

For Lansbury, socialism wasn’t just a political theory- it was a way of life. Friendly and approachable, he operated an ’open door’ policy at his modest home in Bow.

Rather than seeing politics as route for accumulating wealth, Lansbury gave his money away.

In his autobiography ‘Beyond Nab End‘, the historian William Woodruff, then a young Labour activist, recalls meeting Lansbury at a meeting of the local Labour party in Bow. “Lansbury greeted me as if I was someone important . I felt his great warmth. His blue-grey luminous eyes were smiling. He looked at peace with himself. I was captivated by him”.

Lansbury was deeply loved by the working classes of East London. In fact, it’s hard to think of a 20th century politician who was held in such affection by ordinary people: to many George Lansbury was a saint. When Lansbury died, at the age of 81, in 1940, huge crowds attended his funeral.

I wonder how many of today’s New Labour politicians will be so widely mourned?

Lansbury may never have become Prime Minister; he stood down from the Labour leadership in 1935 after a party conference row over rearmament, but his legacy was long-lasting.

The leftwards shift of the Labour Party under his leadership meant that when the party did return to power again in 1945, it would actually achieve real change, and not betray the working class as Macdonald’s 1929-31 government had done.

But I’m quite sure if he could see just the depths that Labour has descended to since 1997, with its sleaze, its pro-privatisation policies and its aggressive pro-war stance, ‘Saint George’ would be turning in his grave.


Anonymous said...

I love the understatement of that "party conference row over rearmament"!

You're fond of alternative histories, so would you care to speculate on what might have happened to this country had Lansbury become PM in the late 1930s? I'd say the swastika would have been flying over Whitehall well before 1940 was out.

Anonymous said...

George Lansbury epitomised every that was good about 'OLD LABOUR'.
There is no one like him around today.

John Gray said...

Hi Neil

Yes, but No but..

As someone who has worked in GL “manor” for many years I have a lot of admiration for him on local issues. However, this was also someone who felt he could convert Hitler into “Christianity” and lets make it clear, was so sincerely committed to pacifism and opposed rearmament that if he had been prime minister before the war, we would lost – and Hitler would have won. Full stop.

Gracchi said...

"do your worst" in the decade of Hitler- his wisdom was truly exceptional!

Roland Hulme said...

I think attitudes towards war are largely irrelevent. The real 'shame' about the Labour Party is how it sold out - going from a real, honest, socialist party supporting the working man - to a clone of the conservatives.

I'm not a socialist, but I did admire the purity of purpose in the old party. New Labour is just a cynical shell with nothing in common with the roots of the party that earned itself an election with in 1945.

Neil Clark said...

draper: agreed

soup dragon/john gray/gracchi:
I think it's a bit harsh to criticise Lansbury's stance on war as we all have the benefit of hindsight. Lansbury, who was anti-war before 1914, saw what happened in 1914-18, so can we really blame him for being so opposed to war? Pacifism was widespread in the 1920s,1930s, and I dare say you might have been pacifists too had you been around at the time.
It's obvious to us now that Britain should have taken a tougher line with Hitler, but was it so obvious in 1935? Lansbury would not have become PM in the late 1930s because of his pacifism, so your question is academic Soup D. And don't forget in 1935 he was going to resign the Labour leadership anyway as Peter Shore makes clear in his book 'Leading the Left' so Bevin's attack as well as being nasty was unjustified. Lansbury knew that his views on rearmanent were out of sync with many in the party which is why he was preparing to step down. He was a man of principle, not an opportunist.

On the pacifist issue generally; who is to say that if Lansbury's views had prevailed prior to WW1, not only would we have been spared the horrors of 1914-18, but also the rise of Hitler too.

Neil Clark said...

roland: absolutely. I think a lot of non-socialists would agree with what you say.