Matthew Worley has attempted to write a history of the Labour Party, rather than the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), during the inter-war period by 'examining both the Labour leadership and the experiences of the men, women, trade unionists and socialists who built and sustained the party apparatus from 1918'. It's an ambitious objective but one predicated on a misunderstanding of the Party and its historians. He suggests previous histories have been broad party accounts of Labour's progress, detailed examinations of particular stages in the party's history, autobiographies and biographies of leading party figures, thematic approaches and studies of particular regions or localities.
He opines, 'to examine adequately the history of Labour, it is necessary to consider the priorities, perspectives and activities of those members who sustained the party in the localities; to assess the relationship between the PLP, the party centre, its affiliates and divisional organisations; and to recognise the differentiated contexts and ways in which the Labour Party emerged, developed and fought to represent its constituents'. However, researching the minutes of fifty constituency parties out of more than six hundred can hardly be considered substantial, notwithstanding Worley's extensive writing on the subject.
The traditional view of Labour's pre-war growth was one created by increased trade union membership and the weakness of a minority Liberal government dependent on its support. The Party had been divided over such issues as Lloyd George's 'People's Budget" and support for the militant Suffragettes. Ramsay MacDonald, who was generally acknowledged as the Party's most effective personality, constantly emphasised the parliamentary road to socialism. Bruce Glasier, amongst others, accused him of being neither socialist nor Labour by conviction. However, MacDonald understood the nature of the PLP, a majority of whom were sponsored by trade unions. MacDonald was opposed to the war and stepped down from the PLP chairmanship alienating many in the Labour movement and amongst the general public. He was castigated for his anti-war stance and humiliated when Horatio Bottomley, who was later imprisoned for fraud, revealed MacDonald was illegitimate. Labour's divisions continued throughout the war with Arthur Henderson accepting a post in Asquith's coalition government.
Much of the local Labour local activity was undertaken by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and socialist theorists, such as the Fabians, who called upon the British empirical tradition to give effect to what Sidney Webb called, 'the inevitability of gradualness'. Labour gradually worked itself into positions of municipal power. It was Webb who wrote Clause Four into Labour's new Constitution which expanded membership to a variety of 'sections'. However, Labour lacked a cohesive ideology beyond a commitment to Parliamentary Socialism. The guild socialist ideas of G D H Cole disappeared down the plug hole of realism while support for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was based on opposition to British intervention. The Party's commitment to empiricism - what works as opposed to ideology - was never in danger, particularly after Lenin brought the British Communist Movement under his control. Worley suggests the war provided space into which Labour could progress but the space was created, less by experience of state control, as by the fatal Liberal split between Asquith and Lloyd George in 1916.
After the war there was a subtle change in Labour representation. In 1918, 48 MP's were sponsored by trade unions and three by the ILP. In 1922 the numbers were 85 and 32 respectively, while about 100 MP's were members of the ILP itself. Labour was no longer seen as representing narrow trade union interests (although it has never completely shaken off that charge) but as representing a body of opinion. While the Party was committed to some form of public ownership, democratic control of industry, a revolution in national finance and the redistribution of wealth, none of it was practical. When public ownership was established it was not democratic, new economic ideas were thrown out with Mosley (as much because of the person as the programme) and wealth redistribution was a simple policy of taxing the rich. The 'New Jerusalem' of ethical socialism and the planned economy were misplaced dreams. The post-war Welfare State was based on the Beveridge report and experience in community health, not socialist theories.
Labour's accession to power came about largely as a result of the electoral system which in 1923 turned an 0.1% share of the electorate into into a 33 seat advantage over the Liberals. The following year the 'Zinoviev Letter' effectively killed off the Liberals many of whom voted Conservative while Labour's vote actually increased. By 1929 Labour was almost level with the Conservative share of the vote. The Liberals spent two years trying without success to get Labour to pass an electoral reform bill. In the 1931 election which followed the formation of the National government Labour 30.9% of the vote but only won 52 seats, the Liberals won 32 seats with 6.5%. Between times Labour had learned the lesson of the ill-fated 1926 General Strike rejecting theory in favour of realism and strengthening the trade unions' resolve to avoid mixing the industrial issues with the purely political.
Worley describes Labour's policies during the 1930s as 'Socialism, Peace and Democracy', although the Party often appeared not to know what the words meant. The reaction to MacDonald's 'betrayal' provided a short-lived impetus to non-Parliamentary socialistic theories which manifested themselves in naive attempts to work with Communist inspired campaigns in opposition to 'fascist' aggression. The pacifist George Lansbury led the PLP until the 1935 Conference when Ernest Bevin bluntly accused him of 'hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it'. He was succeeded by Attlee whose career had been spent working on social issues in Stepney and was steeped in the practical socialism of municipal politics. The party had determined the victory of ideals had to be organised but Worley gives far too much attention to the minutiae of organisation. Nonetheless, useful for reference and worth five stars.