Labour Party

1935 and all that

Misrepresenting history doesn’t educate anyone, argues Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP.

“Labour’s worst defeat since 1935” – if we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times since 2019. For the Labour right it has become a neat mantra intended to encapsulate how unelectable Jeremy Corbyn was by benchmarking the last general election with a catastrophic defeat in Labour’s distant past. Yet the Labour right’s comparisons look like they were drawn from Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics.

General ElectionLabour Vote% of VoteParliamentary Seats
2005  (Blair) 9,552,436 35.2% 355
2010  (Brown) 8,609,527 29.0% 258
2015  (Miliband) 9,347,273 30.4% 232
2017  (Corbyn) 12,878,460 40.0% 292
2019  (Corbyn) 10,269,051 32.1% 202

In the legend created since the last general election, the electorate rose up in opposition to the 2019 manifesto. In fact, the single most important factor that lost Labour seats was the shift on Brexit policy away from the declaration in the 2017 manifesto that Labour would respect the Referendum result and towards the line pushed by Keir Starmer’s wing of the party for a second referendum. But in the realm of electoral facts, the following is clear. Labour under Corbyn in 2019 won more votes than it did under Blair in 2005, Brown in 2010 and Miliband in 2015; he also won a higher vote share than both Brown and Miliband.

Of course, seats are the critical issue under First Past the Post, and its vagaries were responsible for Blair in 2005 winning 63 more seats than Corbyn in 2017, despite winning 4.8% less of the popular vote. But there isn’t much comfort for Labour supporters of PR in recent elections. Under a strictly proportional system, UKIP would have won 82 seats in 2015 and Labour would have won 32 fewer seats in 2017.

The flipside of rubbishing Labour in 2019 has been to cast its 1935 comparator as a kind of political abyss of unfathomable depth. And, wouldn’t you know, until Clem Attlee took over just three weeks before election day, Labour was led by George Lansbury – its last left wing leader before Jeremy Corbyn 80 years later. As the following table demonstrates, this turns historical reality on its head.

General ElectionLabour Vote% of VoteParliamentary Seats
1929  (MacDonald) 8,048,968 37.1% 287
1931  (Henderson) 6,395,065 30.6% 52
1935  (Attlee) 7,984,988 38.0% 154

Labour took office in May 1929 as a minority government five months before the Wall Street Crash, with MacDonald’s Cabinet tilting heavily rightwards. Faced with economic shock waves, Labour’s leadership as a whole failed to provide any practical solutions to rapidly rising unemployment, which passed 2 million in 1930. Unable to provide any alternative to orthodox capitalist economics they became prisoners of it. This translated into cuts in Civil Service and Forces’ pay and unemployment benefits.

When Ramsay MacDonald and his Chancellor Philip Snowden – both pioneers of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s – abruptly crossed the floor in August 1931 to join the Tories in a ‘National’ government, and in the confusion caused by the defection of Labour’s best known leaders, the coalition of Tories, right wing Liberals and 13 Labour defectors swept the board, winning 554 seats. Nine months later, Labour suffered a further split, this time to the left, when the ILP disaffiliated. The one stable factor appeared to be the TUC General Council which held the party together.

Labour began to bounce back in 1932. Of the 62 Parliamentary by elections between February 1932 and September 1935, Labour won 11 seats, nine of them from the Tories, and held five more. In 1934 Labour won the London County Council for the first time in a landslide, gaining 34 seats – a victory widely attributed to Herbert Morrison bringing a new professionalism to campaigning, and to Labour’s emphasis on public house building.

Labour’s electoral recovery took place – please note, Blairites! – in parallel to a trade union revival. Union membership grew every year from 1934 to 1944. Militant rank and file movements reappeared, and the number of disputes grew steadily between 1933 and 1937.

Although poverty in the ‘distressed areas’ of the north and north east, Glasgow and South Wales – areas where Labour was strong – remained a serious issue up to the Second World War, both Labour and the unions made progress in the new industries, including car and aircraft production and other engineering, that were opening up in London and the Midlands.

The 1935 General Election saw Labour gaining 1.6 million votes and 102 seats. Far from a disaster, it was an important point in the upswing that would ultimately lead to the landslide of 1945.

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