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Starmer, Blair, 1935 and all that

By bending history, the Labour right is trying to convince us that social reform is deeply unpopular with the voters and the only way forward is further into bland technocracy. SOLOMON HUGHES gives the facts - on past and present

LABOUR’S current leadership is trying to justify its sharp turn to the right by pointing at the 2019 election result and talking about it being “the worst election defeat since 1935” — a comparison made by Keir Starmer and almost every other Labour spokesman.

Yes, 2019 was bad, but this is a very odd comparison. Labour didn’t win in 1935, but it was actually a good result — Labour got 102 new MPs in 1935, a huge recovery from the real disaster which happened in the election before, 1931.

That year Labour lost 235 MPs, reducing it to just 52 MPs. The 1931 election was a disaster because the Labour right had wrecked the party in an effort to prove it was “sensible.”

Tony Blair went even further on the 1935 result. Appearing on Good Morning Britain, where he was interviewed by his own former spin doctor and fellow propagandist for the Iraq war Alastair Campbell, Blair was asked if he thought Labour faced an “existential” crisis.

Blair said it did and there were “three occasions on which the far left has got near to the leadership of the Labour Party,” including 1935 and they were the “worst defeats we’ve ever had.”

Labour was led by Clement Attlee in 1935. The recovery Labour made — in difficult circumstances — not only brought the party out the much greater crisis of 1931 but also set Labour up for the next election, which Labour, still led by Attlee, won.

The 1935 election wasn’t a victory, but it was a big advance for Labour, setting the party up for arguably its most important victory ever. The fact Blair thinks this was “far left” and “the worst” tells you how self-hating the Labour “moderates” are.

After the 1929 election Labour was the biggest party, forming its second ever government, under Ramsay MacDonald. That year the stock market crashed and unemployment soared.

Instead of doing what many Labour and even some Liberal MPs argued and meeting the depression with “Keynesian” state spending, with public works and investment for recovery, MacDonald wanted to keep the value of the pound “strong” and on the gold standard.

He was even willing to cut the already miserable dole of the increasing millions of unemployed. The Labour cabinet refused to go along with the cuts, so MacDonald split the party and joined a Tory-dominated national government instead.

The “moderate” MacDonald tearing up Labour’s commitments to working people meant that in the 1931 election Labour crashed to just 52 MPs. This was an “existential crisis.”

The 1935 election actually brought Labour back from the brink and on the road to power. It wasn’t an easy election — the Tories deliberately called it when Labour didn’t have a leader. George Lansbury had helped rebuild the party after the 1935 defeat, but he was caught as Labour wrestled with anti-war and anti-fascist politics.

As the generation that had seen millions die for nothing in the WW1 trenches, anti-war feeling was strong. But the rise of the fascist powers challenged this: Lansbury, a pure pacifist, opposed sanctions on fascist Italy, which was then invading Abyssinia.

Lansbury sincerely held his position, but it meant he could not be Labour leader. Lansbury stood down, so Stanley Baldwin immediately called an election to exploit Labour’s temporary weakness.

In a major speech Herbert Morrison, one of Labour’s leading MPs denounced the move, saying: “Thus the great reputation of the Tory Party for political trickery, deception and cheating is to be maintained.”

Morrison told a mass meeting of the railway clerks union that the government was doing a “trick election” because “it fears a straight honest fight on the real principles of public policy.”

Labour fought the election under their temporary leader, Clement Attlee.

The 1935 Labour manifesto — which Blair says was “far left” — set out some of the policies Labour would enact in 1945, though it was actually less radical than 1945.

As well as promising better benefits and “the provision of healthy homes for the people at reasonable rents until the needs of the nation are fully met” the manifesto offered the “raising of the school-leaving age” — then 14 — “ with adequate maintenance allowances.”

The supposedly “far-left” Labour promised it would “vigorously develop the health services and in particular, would treat as one of its immediate concerns the terrible and neglected problem of maternal mortality.”

Labour promised public works in the “distressed areas” to “reabsorb idle workers into productive employment by far-reaching schemes of national development.”

As part of Labour’s “bold policy of socialist reconstruction” it offered “schemes of public ownership for the efficient conduct, in the national interest, of banking, coal and its products, transport, electricity, iron and steel and cotton.”

This manifesto, disdained by Blair, helped Labour recover from the right-wing sell-out of 1929. The Tories remained the majority, but Labour was on the road for victory in the next election, which was delayed until 1945 by the WW2.

However, Labour was now so big that Winston Churchill had to bring them into serious posts in the wartime coalition government. When Labour won in 1945, the 1935 manifesto policies became real.

“Vigorous” development of health services became the NHS, the council houses were built, the schools nationalised, the benefits extended and many of the proposed nationalisations took place.

The Labour right is trying to introduce a sort of self-hating cringe: it wants Labour to believe that social reform is actually deeply unpopular, so the party needs to shift rightwards — into bland technocracy.

In reality, building social reform is hard, but possible over time. The Labour right wants to deny the recovery of 1935 just as it wants to deny the recovery of 2017. It did all it could to undo the 2017 advance, with some success.

This self-harming approach has left the Labour right offering even worse results, like the loss of Hartlepool. Bizarrely, it now wants to use the example of its own failure to push even further away from the possibilities of Labour recovering by offering real reform.


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