Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

A Hundred Years of Labour Governments

Ben Jackson


Jake Colling

| 19 mins read

Labour emerged as one of the two main parties of government just over 100 years ago, when the first Labour government took office in 22 January 1924. That Labour government was short-lived, lasting until November 1924, but it established the principle that the party could govern and that ministers drawn from the working class could occupy power with as much right as ministers drawn from the middle and upper classes. With the live prospect of the election of another Labour government in a few weeks, it is a good moment to reflect on what 100 years of Labour governments can tell us about Labour's past and what an incoming Labour government can learn from the experience of its predecessors.

Perhaps the most striking historical fact about the Labour Party is that, as the late David Marquand famously argued, it has been much less successful than the Conservatives at winning general elections and forming governments. Since Labour emerged as one of the two large parties of the British state, say from the 1922 general election which marked the break-up of the postwar coalition government, Labour has been in government for roughly thirty-three years, the Conservatives for about sixty-four years (and the two parties shared power for about five years from 194045). There have only been six Labour prime ministers while across the same period fourteen Conservatives have been prime minister (admittedly that latter number has been inflated by the rapid recent turnover at the top of British politics). Only three Labour leaders have ever won a parliamentary majority at a general election: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. When we talk about 100 years of Labour governments, we are really discussing several distinct bursts of Labour in power with long periods of Conservative rule in between. These episodes of Labour government are: the brief and frankly unsuccessful Labour governments of 1924, 192931 headed by Ramsay MacDonald; the major reforming administration headed by Clement Attlee between 1945 and 1951 (preceded by sharing power in coalition with the Conservatives from 194045); the Wilson and Callaghan governments from 1964–70, and then again with a similar set of ministers between 1974 and 1979; and finally, the Blair/Brown governments of 1997–2010, Labour's longest continuous period in office. Despite the different historical contexts of these administrations, there are some illuminating similarities between the life cycle of these Labour governments.

Why Labour politics resembles the myth of Sisyphus

One common feature is that a period of Labour government engenders disappointment among Labour's supporters and then bitter arguments about why that government was so disappointing. This precipitates a determination among some party supporters to avoid such disappointment in the future by shifting the ideological profile of the party in a more radical direction, which exacerbates party divisions. Eventually, after a long period of internal argument, some of it productive and some of it less so, a leadership emerges that presents a more moderate public face to the electorate, while also drawing on the new ideas generated by the preceding years of debate. At that point, weaknesses have begun to emerge in the governing coalition assembled by the Conservatives, and Labour is able to capitalise on its new positioning as a credible alternative government to take power. Andrew Gamble, former editor of Political Quarterly, once observed that this cycle of Labour politics resembles the myth of Sisyphus. The Sisyphean task of Labour leaders has been to create a party with broad national appeal, but then to lose that appeal and be condemned to begin again by constructing a new broad-based electoral coalition. Why has the experience of Labour politics had this Sisyphean quality? And why have Labour governments caused such disappointment to their followers?

One reason is ideological: the Labour Party was founded on high aspirations. Ramsay MacDonald and his colleagues sought to create a new sort of society, characterised by equality and mutual cooperation, one in which material acquisitiveness took second place to the pursuit of a more enriching and moral way of life. For much of the period since 1924, Labour members have shared something of this aspiration, although they have not always expressed it in precisely those terms. But a critique of capitalism has animated Labour politics over many years—the belief that the market economy generates inequality, corrupts democracy, and generates an ethos of selfish competitiveness. As the decades have passed, this critique has been refined. One important change during the post-1945 period was a shift from seeing socialism as about a qualitative transformation in social relations, brought about by altering the ownership of industry, to the view that socialism was about the pursuit of an egalitarian and cooperative society through a variety of policy tools, perhaps including some limited public ownership, but also through state spending, labour market regulation, widening educational opportunity and all of the other policies employed by Labour governments after 1945. Nonetheless, even this revisionist view of socialism sets out Labour's political objectives in demanding terms: a society of greater equality, which seeks to tackle inequalities of class, gender and race. Labour's political ideology is therefore rooted in a set of ethical claims about a just society, even among those who created New Labour. Tony Blair was clear in his early political rhetoric that he sought a more communitarian and cohesive British society rather than the individualism favoured by the neoliberal right.

The gap between the ideal and the achievement

It is therefore inevitable that any Labour government, even the fabled 1945 administration, would fail to achieve these objectives in their entirety. Progress towards these aims is obviously possible, but there will always be a gap between the ideal and the achievement. Governments in a pluralistic democracy like Britain are not all-powerful agents able to push through whatever measures they desire: they face serious constraints on their freedom of action. Often these constraints are interpreted by Labour's supporters as a lack of will on the part of the party leadership, an interpretation that is aided by party leaders’ reluctance to admit the limits of their power. Three key constraints have been particularly important in restraining Labour in government.

First, Labour governments have been constrained by geopolitics. In the interwar years, Britain's status as an imperial power posed one geopolitical dilemma for Labour: running a state that was entangled in a complex set of colonial relationships meant that the party found itself, however briefly, charged with the administration of an imperial system. After 1945, Britain's geopolitical standing was transformed from imperial power to a junior member of a Western alliance led by the United States. During the 1945–51 government, Attlee and Ernest Bevin positioned the UK firmly within NATO and the US side of the Cold War. Arguments about whether that government was in some sense right or wrong to align itself in this way over-estimates how much agency Britain had as it emerged, impoverished, from the Second World War. Nonetheless, this alignment with the US has posed considerable problems for Labour governments over the years. Rearmament for the Korean War was an important factor in the splits within the 1945 government that led to Aneurin Bevan's resignation in 1951 and the ideological divisions that then split Labour in the 1950s. The Iraq War likewise had a debilitating impact on the Blair government's political strength. Clearly, it was nonetheless possible to say ‘no’ to the US on some matters. The obvious comparison here is between Blair on Iraq and Wilson on Vietnam. Wilson did not commit British troops to the Vietnam War, despite pressure from the US to do so, instead restricting himself to verbal support (for which he was strongly criticised from the left). As we look ahead to what might happen if Labour win power later this year, another Trump administration will clearly be a huge test for any Labour government to confront, but, as the last few months in Gaza have shown, even a Democratic administration nominally closely ideologically aligned with Labour can pose a substantial problem for the party's internal cohesion and electoral coalition.

Second, the economic context sets boundaries to what it is possible for Labour governments to achieve in power. Labour governments have not enjoyed good fortune in their economic circumstances: Ramsay MacDonald faced the onset of the Great Depression; Clement Attlee inherited a Britain and world on its knees after six years of total war; Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan faced the end of the postwar boom. The Blair government was in fact the exception to all other Labour governments in that it enjoyed relative economic stability and growth for many years, but it too suffered latterly from the impact of the financial crisis. A major problem for all the other Labour governments was how to square huge popular expectations with tight public spending and low economic growth—a problem even in 1945–51. It's not clear that any Labour government in fact managed to resolve that tension though, if any did, it was the Attlee government, which delivered significant symbolic and material benefits to its voters and was rewarded with perhaps the oddest electoral loss in British political history in 1951. In 1951, Labour achieved its highest ever share of the vote (49 per cent) but nonetheless narrowly lost out on seats to the Conservatives. The basic pitch of a Labour government is that public action can improve the economy and deliver better public services and rising living standards for more people than the Conservative formula of giving greater space to the private sector. If a Labour government finds itself confronting economic crisis and constraints on public expenditure and wages, then the rationale for a Labour government becomes harder to discern. Of course, the British economy today is not in a very robust condition and one concern about an incoming Labour government in 2024 must be whether it will be able to improve these economic circumstances or whether it will, once again, find itself buffeted by economic headwinds to such an extent that its electoral coalition is destabilised.

A third constraint is that Labour has consistently faced a more hostile media environment than the Conservative Party. There have been ups and downs in Labour's relationship with the print media in particular, but Britain has generally had a Tory-leaning press in the twentieth century which has had few compunctions about amplifying Conservative political messages and dampening Labour ones. The advent of broadcast media and the BBC has counterbalanced that—in the sense that on TV and radio impartiality is enforced more rigorously. But the broadcast media has always been influenced by the print media. It remains the case that Labour has a much tougher time generating coverage of its political agenda, particularly in opposition. This is another factor that makes it harder for Labour to sustain successful electoral coalitions and hold them together over a longer period of time—we will see in due course if the decline of the print media and the rise of online news has shifted this basic dynamic, either for better or worse.

These forces have driven Labour in government to the right, in turn causing divisions in Labour's electoral coalition, and they will almost certainly do the same to Starmer as they did to MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown. One conclusion to draw from this is that a preoccupation with a purely party-political history of Labour governments obscures the various other social, cultural, political and intellectual forces that have shaped Labour's fate in office, leading observers to assume that it had more agency than it in fact did.

Founding ambitions

But, while Labour had less agency in government than we sometimes think, of course it did nonetheless have some—the party that controls the UK state can always introduce significant reforms. There are important ways in which the history of modern Britain has changed because of political decisions made by Labour governments, including tangible improvements to the life chances of the working class and other marginalised groups. But, if we are correct to perceive a cyclical, or Sisyphean, character to Labour governments, the key to entrenching those changes and making them endure beyond the tenure of one government is to enact reforms that subsequent Conservative governments will accept as enduring and not seek to undo. Perhaps the best example of this from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—before Labour was a party of government—was the arrival of universal suffrage. Bitterly resisted at the time, it eventually came to be seen as irreversible. The clearest example from the years of Labour government is the NHS. The particular form that healthcare took in the UK was decisively shaped by the fact it was Aneurin Bevan and the Labour Party that brought it into existence: universal in scope, taxpayer-funded, controlled by the central state. The NHS is not the sort of healthcare system that a Conservative government would have enacted. We can also generate other, more recent, examples from the Blair/Brown years: the minimum wage, devolution, the equalities and anti-discrimination legislation that culminated in the 2010 Equality Act. Although it was not always clear at the time, in retrospect the achievements of the New Labour government had a centre-left hue: increased public investment in health and education, and the use of income redistribution to reduce relative poverty. Yet, it is striking that those latter achievements were quickly unwound after the Conservatives returned to power. What did persist were institutional innovations such as the minimum wage and devolution.

If we return to the ambitions of the founders of the Labour Party, they were seeking what we would now call cultural, as well as economic, change in British society—they sought social reform to create a more just and humane country, characterised by greater solidarity and equality. But they believed that this could only be achieved by persuading their opponents to change their positions, rather than through revolutionary violence or expropriation. They sought to embed change gradually, democratically, over time. In many respects, they did not succeed, though in some they did. If there is a contemporary lesson from this for today's Labour Party, it is the importance of thinking strategically about which reforms should be prioritised in government that, on the one hand, advance Labour's values of equality and solidarity, but, on the other hand, will eventually win over cross-party support, so that after Labour leaves government those reforms will persist as a legacy of Labour's time in office. More ambitiously, we might also ask: is there a way to break out of the Sisyphean cycle of Labour governments? To roll the boulder to the top of the hill and keep it there for a while? New Labour almost managed it, but it has been a long wait since then for another Labour government. It is a historical question that everyone in the Labour Party, both leaders and members, ought to think about: can there ever be a period of Labour government that is sustained in length and does not end in cries of betrayal?

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  • Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. He is also Professor of Modern History at Oxford University.

    Articles by Ben Jackson