The Relevance of Ramsay MacDonald to Labour Today

Ramsay MacDonald’s historic leadership of the Labour Party has many relevant lessons for the Labour movement today. After all, it was his leadership that led the fledgling party of the working class down all manner of dead-ends, encouraging the type of dangerous class compromises that reached their zenith under Tony Blair. But while the unprincipled MacDonald was forced to campaign against the socialist and Marxist grassroots of the Labour movement to solidify his position… times have now changed. And under the leadership of the principled socialist Jeremy Corbyn, we now have the unique opportunity to remake the Labour Party so that it actually serves the interests of the many.

No one would deny that the monumental process of reconstructing a democratic and socialist party of the working class will be easy, but our collective task will be made somewhat easier if we are familiar with the problems that have confronted our class in the past. Hence by critically reflecting upon some of the failures of Ramsay MacDonald and those in his company in the early Labour movements leadership, this article hopes to provide not only a fresh look at these tumultuous times for the working class, but also help suggest directions in which the Labour Party might now move under Corbyn’s leadership.

Although Ramsay MacDonald is best remembered for his treachery during the latter parts of his parliamentary career, the warning signs were evident well prior to the commencement of the First World War. To recap: in 1906, Ramsay MacDonald was elected as a Labour Party MP in West Leicester as the candidate of the socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP). Having personally played a critical role during the formative years of the ILP — standing as one of the initial ILP candidates during the 1894 general election — in 1911 MacDonald became the Labour Party Leader (only resigning from this position with the launch of the War). In his largely uncritical pamphlet, Ramsay MacDonald: The Leicester Years (1906-1918), Labour historian John Hinks explained:

“When Ramsay MacDonald first became involved with the Labour movement in Leicester, it was already thriving. It comprised a very active branch of the ILP (the largest branch outside Bradford, where the movement began) and the local branch of the Labour Party, which the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) had become following its success in the 1906 election. MacDonald was well aware of his constituency’s pride in its radical past. Leicester had been one of the first towns to embrace with enthusiasm the Labour cause.” (p.14)

The election of MacDonald and another twenty-eight LRC candidates during the 1906 general election represented a massive step forward for the British working class. At that stage in Labour movement history, Marxists played a critical role within the LRC and were actively involved within its democratic and federal structures (this is a legacy that the Blairites, who oppose Corbyn and dominate the operational machinery of the Labour Party, seek to oppose). For example, the Social Democratic Federation, which was founded by Henry Hyndman in 1881, had been involved with the negotiations for the initial formation of a the LRC (established in 1900). Unfortunately, this group of revolutionary socialists adopted a sectarian position when the LRC refused to adopt a clear socialist program for changing society, and within a year the Socialist Democratic Federation had split with the LRC, leaving its leadership securely in the hands of ‘evolutionary’ socialists like MacDonald. These moderate MacDonald-socialists, who now remained largely unopposed at the head of the LRC, actively repudiated class struggle and entered into a secret electoral pact with the Liberals that remained hidden from the public for the next fifty years.

The continued domination of the Labour Party by the likes of MacDonald however failed to quell the ambitions of the ILP’s militant rank and file who continued to press their leadership towards a principled socialist position. Indeed revolutionaries like Victor Grayson, an ILP member who was elected to Parliament as an independent socialist in 1907, were only elected against the determined opposition of the Labour Party’s official leadership machinery. It should therefore have been expected that during the party’s earlier years their leaders would work in alliance with the Liberal Party to stand against Conservatives. This deep and dangerous class compromise unfortunately led to the dire situation that Labour’s voice in Parliament was needlessly “reduced to a muffled plaint”.[1] Indeed, MacDonald’s harmonious relationship with Labour’s class enemies was a recipe for disaster, and in 1910…

“… Lloyd George approached MacDonald with the proposal that he should join a Coalition Government to be made up of ‘moderate’ Liberals and Conservatives. MacDonald tentatively agreed, and told Henderson that he had been empowered, should a Coalition be formed, to bring in two under-secretaries. Henderson opposed participation and the scheme in any case soon collapsed.” (Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p.24)

MacDonald’s studiously unprincipled orientation towards the Labour movement precipitated a “major crises in the local Labour movement” in Leicester, when a row arose in June 1913 as to whether Labour should even stand in a local by-election.

“MacDonald’s position was clear from the start. He had a considerable personal stake in the Labour-Liberal agreement and had no wish to put the agreement, or his own future, at risk by fielding a Labour candidate in the by-election.” (Hinks, p.21)

In this incident, the Leicester branch of the ILP actively opposed MacDonald, and with the endorsement of the Leicester Labour Party the local branch put forward Alderman George Banton as their preferred candidate. Herein Labour’s problems gathered momentum, as both the national Labour Party and national ILP considered it prudent for Labour’s future growth not to contend the by-election. This opposition to the local Labour movement led to a “lively meeting in Leicester” at which national representatives attempted to “explain the decision not to enter the fray.” After much “long and acrimonious” debate, labour supporters remained unconvinced with delegates voting 63-9 in favour of contesting the seat. Subsequently the national ILP felt it prudent to now change their minds and they decided to support Banton. This was too little too late, because the Labour Party National Executive Committee, always keen to maintain their cosy relationship with the Liberals, met the day after local delegates had met in Leicester and voted 10-1 not to stand a candidate in the by-election.[2]

Once MacDonald and Labour’s leadership had taken the decision to quash support for Banton’s electoral bid, the Leicester branch of a smaller Marxist group, the British Socialist Party (the newish name for the Social Democratic Federation) convened a meeting and nominated Edward Hartley to stand in the by-election. Banton, having withdrawn from the contest willingly gave his public support to Hartley, as did other socialists and ILPers like George Lansbury; in addition, the Church Socialist League, “which was quite strong in Leicester” and was led by one of MacDonald’s close friends, Rev. F.L. Donaldson, also chose to back Hartley.

“Donaldson thought that the national executive had ‘made a grave mistake, from which may issue most serious consequences.’ One of his letters makes it clear that MacDonald had told Donaldson as well as Banton that he might sever his links with Leicester, a position which caused Donaldson ‘much grief’ in view of MacDonald’s ‘great hold upon the people in Leicester.’”[3]

Given the acrimonious state of affairs of the labour movement in Leicester, further confusion arose the day before polling day when the press propagated the idea that support for Hartley would be interpreted by MacDonald as a vote of no confidence in the Labour Party leader. MacDonald quickly responded saying that this story was simply Liberal propaganda, as until then MacDonald had indeed kept his head down and made no public statements opposing Hartley. Yet despite such protestations, what is beyond doubt is that the story originated from private comments that MacDonald had made to Labour Party members where MacDonald had voiced his opposition to Hartley (these comments were then misreported in the press as a “Labour Party resolution” or “manifesto”). Importantly these critical words had only made it into the press because Labour’s chief whip George Roberts, who was a MP for the ILP, had “carelessly” passed the news on to the Liberal Party, who then duly passed on the good news to the media. The damage was now done, and a local newspaper reported that the “ruse was worth several thousand votes to the Liberals as people paraded with placards announcing: ‘Every vote for Hartley is a vote against MacDonald.’”[4] In fact in many respects Hartley did very well to poll 2,580 votes against the more substantial votes for the Liberal incumbent (10,863) and those obtained by the Tories (9,279). Unsurprisingly, Labour historian Ross McKibbin concluded that distortions and treachery surrounding this local crisis in working class representation were such that “MacDonald’s pre-war reputation [within the Labour movement] never really recovered.”[5]

The significance of this by-election to socialists across the world was such that Lenin penned a short contemporary commentary on the matter in July 2013 titled “Exposure of the British Opportunists.” Lenin drew attention to the support that labour members had given to Hartley, “an ex-member of the Independent Labour Party, who left it because of its opportunism.” He continued:

“The members of the Leicester Branch of the ILP were in an awkward position: they were heart and soul in favour of Hartley, but … but what of the discipline in their party, the decision of their Executive Committee? The Leicester people found a way out: they closed the meeting, and each in his private capacity declared for Hartley. Next day a huge meeting of workers endorsed Hartley’s candidature. Banton himself sent a telegram stating that he would vote for Hartley. The Leicester trade unions declared for Hartley.”

Lenin interpreted the careless leak of MacDonald’s private opposition to Hartley as a deliberate act of subterfuge, saying that “The I.L.P. Parliamentary group intervened and published a protest in the Liberal press”.  He therefore concluded:

“Class-conscious workers in various countries quite often adopt a ‘tolerant’ attitude toward the British ILP. This is a great mistake. The betrayal of the workers’ cause in Leicester by the ILP is no accident, but the result of the entire opportunist policy of the Independent Labour Party. The sympathies of all real Social-Democrats should be with those British Social-Democrats who are determinedly combating the Liberal corruption of the workers by the ‘Independent’ Labour Party in Britain.”

This ongoing betrayal of the working class by the labour lieutenants of capital” was concretely demonstrated the following year, when despite protestations from the rank and file, the Labour Party and the ILP refused to organise to bring a swift end to the imperialist First World War. In this regard the lack of socialist principles in the Labour movements’ leadership was not unusual, and similarly, the leaders of the British Socialist Party initially backed the War. Eventually the latter’s pro-war position was reversed in 1915 when the grassroots of the British Socialist Party “defeat[ed] Hyndman and its other pro-war leaders.” The British Socialist Party…

“…then declared at its Conference of that year that the supreme duty of socialists everywhere was to work for an immediate peace on such terms as would preclude a repetition of the war. More concretely, many of its members, particularly in Scotland, were actively involved in the leadership of the industrial struggles of the latter part of the war.” [6]

Much more can be said about MacDonald’s highly problematic leadership of the Labour Party, but the question that now poses itself to the working class, is how will Jeremy Corbyn act to remake the Labour Party as a genuine party of socialism? Will he placate the “Liberals” that dominate the leadership positions within his own party, or will he instigate processes that enable the reclamation of the Labour Party for the working class? These and other questions will be taken up in the next instalment of this article.

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NOTES

[1] Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p.23.

[2] John Pasiecznik, “Liberals, Labour and Leicester – The 1913 By-Election in Local and National Perspective,” Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, LXIII, 1989, pp.96-104. “The Leicester Independent Labour Party (ILP) grew remarkably quickly – from 54 members at its inception, to 225 in 1898 and 800 in 1912 making it the second largest branch in the country after Bradford. The figure increased to 2,300 in 1918.” (p.96)

[3] Hinks, p.24.

[4] Pasiecznik, p.101. On the alleged carelessness of George Roberts, Hinks writes: “Although MacDonald intended to issue no message to the electors in Leicester until after polling day, a bizarre twist of events thwarted his plans.” Roberts “carelessly mentioned the outcome” of the recent meeting that MacDonald had with a “deputation from Leicester” where MacDonald had “indicated that he would regard a large vote for Hartley as a vote of no confidence in him and that he would ‘consider his position’ if there were a substantial BSP vote.” (p.23)

[5] Cited in Hinks: Ross McKibbin, The Evolution of the Labour Party: 1910-1924 (1974), p.63.

[6] Miliband, pp.46-7.

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