Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932


The First Labour Government 1924

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The Labour Party's first taste of high political office came in the immediate aftermath of the 1924 general election. The Conservative Party had fought the election on the single issue of protectionism and had lost almost 90 seats, down from 345 to 258. The Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, viewed the result as a failure to obtain the electoral mandate he sought and declined to form a government. Thus despite winning 67 fewer seats than the Tories, Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party, was asked by King George V to form a government.

Following the decision of Ramsay MacDonald to form a Labour government there were high expectations amongst Labour supporters that MacDonald's government would introduce strong socialist policies to assist Britain's working classes. These hopes were soon dashed as it became clear that the first Labour government had modest objectives. The first of these was not to alienate British middle-class voters, and the second was to show to the wider electorate that Labour in office could be trusted to run the affairs of the British Empire in a satisfactory manner. In the 11 months in which Labour remained in office the only significant piece of legislation which they were able to pass was the Wheatley Housing Act which began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.

During Labour's first term in government Ramsay MacDonald quickly recognised that the previous Conservative policy of diplomatic non-recognition of the Soviet Union was preventing Britain from retrieving substantial debts which had been owed since the days of the Tsarist regime. MacDonald considered Britain's stance as little more than obstinate political posturing which only prevented Britain from collecting substantial debts which could be used by the government to ease the country's precarious economic condition.

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Recognising that there was nothing Britain could do to change the political nature of the Russian state, MacDonald began discussions with the Soviet government aimed at retrieving these debts. A deal was soon brokered in which Britain agreed to recognise the Soviet regime and the Soviets agreed to repay the debt in return for a further loan from Britain. The mainstream press, led by Lord Rothermere's the Daily Mail, were outraged at these developments and became increasingly vicious and hostile towards the Labour government. The re-opening of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union was to be one step too far for many within the British political establishment, and they soon set in motion a sequence of events which would ensure the downfall of the first Labour government.

Soon after Britain re-opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union a small Communist paper was in the process of being prosecuted for sedition. However, after incompetent handling of the case by state prosecutors the attorney-general withdrew proceedings. This added fuel to the ongoing rumours of a left-wing conspiracy within the Labour government, and another election was forced after the Liberals capitulated to establishment pressure and stopped cooperating with the Labour Party.

Just before polling day a letter was sent to the Daily Mail and the Foreign Office, ostensibly written by a senior man in the Kremlin, inciting the Communist Party of Great Britain to prepare for revolution. The Kremlin denounced it as a forgery but the damage was done. The Zinoviev letter, as the incident was called, did no favours at the ballot box for Labour, and so the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin was returned as prime minister.

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