The legacy of 1931

Ramsay MacDonald plaque

Eighty-five years ago this month, on 30 May 1929, the Labour party became the largest single party at a general election for the first time in its history. Labour won 288 seats to the Conservatives’ 260, and the Liberals trailed in with 59. Stanley Baldwin’s uninspiring ‘safety first’ election slogan had fallen flat, and Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister for the second time. Margaret Bondfield became Britain’s first female cabinet minister, as minister of labour.

As a minority government, Labour’s position was not a strong one in any event. But the event that did occur – the Wall Street crash – in the last week of October 1929, weakened the government to an unprecedented extent. Unemployment soared in the United Kingdom and by the summer of 1931 the government was under pressure to accept a cut in unemployment benefit to balance the budget and preserve the government’s credit. The cabinet was split down the middle about accepting such a measure. MacDonald offered the government’s resignation to King George V, but then accepted an invitation to form a national government. Its cabinet initially consisted of MacDonald himself, chancellor Philip Snowden, dominions secretary Jimmy Thomas and lord chancellor John Sankey, together with four Conservatives, including Baldwin, and two Liberals.

History debates what economic policy alternatives were in reality available to the second Labour government dealing with the consequences of the Great Depression. But the betrayal of MacDonald in 1931, abandoning the party he had contributed so much to building up, has come to define this government. For Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to form the national government led to the Labour party being decimated in the general election of 27 October 1931, reduced to only 52 seats. Only three government ministers held their seats: Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps and George Lansbury. Some on the left in the 1930s doubted whether there would ever be a Labour government again. That the Labour recovery from 1931 was painful and slow should not be ignored.

But the government did still achieve some measure of success in the most difficult of circumstances. The Housing Act of 1930 introduced a regime of slum clearance and rehousing that led to the building of hundreds of thousands of homes. The Coal Mines Act of the same year regulated the coal industry on a national basis, introducing a central council.  The government also passed the Unemployment Insurance Act in 1930, seeking to ease the position of the millions unemployed as far as was possible with little money: the ‘genuinely seeking work’ requirement was abolished. The London Passenger Transport Board, created in 1933, had its origins in the London Transport Bill of 1931, introduced into the Commons by a young Herbert Morrison. There was also an attempt to limit naval build-up as Japan was one of the signatories to the London Naval Treaty of April 1930. The legacy of 1931 was a bitter one. But it would still be wrong to consign all the work of the 1929-31 Labour government to the dustbin of history.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics. He writes the Labour history column for Progress and tweets @NThomasSymonds

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Photo: Christian Luts

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  • Anonymous

    It’s questionable whether MacDonald did actually betray the Labour Party – or intend to. The Labour cabinet had agreed to resign and MacDonald told the cabinet that a National government was being considered. The idea was that it would not last long, a few weeks at most. The initial split was mostly without acrimony. But MacDonald, already overtired and still burdened with his Prime Ministerial duties, was unwilling to defend himself to his many critics in the PLP, and when Labour denounced all cuts a split was inevitable. (But Henderson still opposed his expulsion.)

  • Ray McHale

    Yes, very apt that we should discuss a Labour Government potentially bowing to the demand for austerity in the face of economic crash. Clearly the article sets out measures taken that were designed to ease the suffering of the poor and jobless – rather than riding on the backs of the Tory attacks on these people. It strike me that the people behind Progress would have had no qualms at following MacDonald – rather than fighting for the interests of working people. Often we only see the betrayals in our history.