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The remarkable story of Britain's first Labor government

The remarkable story of Britain's first Labor government


Baroness OGrady criticizes

January 1924: first British Labor Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald | Image by: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Baroness OGrady

3 minutes of reading

Drawing on extensive research, David Torrance's new book sheds new light on Britain's first Labor government and how the establishment's dirty tricks contributed to its downfall.

The arrival of a Labor government a century ago sent shock waves through the British establishment. Never before had former miners, railway and foundry workers taken a seat at the cabinet table.

The title of David Torrance's story about this short-lived minority administration, The wild mensays more about the establishment's fear and contempt for the working class than it does about the character or policies of these Labor prime ministers.

Change was in the air. Previous years saw the Easter Rising in Ireland and the revolution in Russia. At home, all men and some women now had the right to vote. Soldiers returned from the horrors of a world war traumatized and disaffected. And union activism has increased with demands for shorter hours and fair wages.

No wonder establishment grandees were shaking in their boots as the first Labor Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, led his cabinet into Downing Street.

In hindsight, the idea that MacDonald posed a threat to the old order seems ridiculous. The enigmatic Scot's reputation was tarnished by his penchant for high society and destroyed by a later betrayal. In 1931, MacDonald was expelled from the Labor Party for forming a National government with the Conservatives that imposed cuts in wages and public spending so brutal that they sparked inner-city riots and a mutiny by the crew of the Royal Navy.

The pen portraits reveal self-taught socialists, hardened by their lives as child workers, rent strikers and union organizers.

But The wild men tells the story of – and seeks to reassess – Labour's first foray into government. Drawing on in-depth research, the author takes a fresh look at Labour's rise to power – and how the establishment's dirty tricks 'Red Scare' contributed to its downfall.

Did the class composition of this first Labor administration matter? The author's pen portraits reveal self-taught socialists, hardened by their lives as child workers, rent strikers and union organizers. There were also “wild” women – notably the former shop worker Margaret Bondfield, our country's first female minister, although confined to a junior rank.

And does the class profile of Parliament still matter today? As the number of working-class MPs has declined over the decades, so has people's confidence in politics.

According to IPPR research, only seven per cent of all current MPs can be considered “working class”, compared to 34 per cent of UK working-age adults.

Although the study did not extend to the House of Lords, it is a safe bet that – oddly in modern Britain – aristocrats outnumber blue-collar workers.

The wild menBut whatever the class origins of each member, the ultimate test of a government's success lies in how much progress it collectively brings to the people of that country and beyond.

This first Labor government introduced modest improvements in education, pensions and benefits, and – its crowning achievement – ​​a massive expansion of decent social housing. In total, this is less than working-class supporters had hoped for and won, but not bad for a minority government that lasted only nine months.

Imagine what could have been accomplished if these Labor pioneers had governed with a majority for a full term. And now let's think about what the ruling Labor Party could achieve for working people over the next five years – or, better yet, ten years.

Baroness O'Grady is a Labor peer

The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain's First Labor Government
By: David Torrance
Editor: Bloomsbury Continuum

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