The First Labour Government - 1924

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1923 Election and its consequences

  • Following his General Election defeat in December 1923, Baldwin wanted to resign immediately as he felt that whatever else the election vote meant it was a clear rejection of his policy of protecion (tariff reform). Baldwin finally rejected the idea of protection in February 1924, although he felt that the public was still undecided on the issue, and he genuinly felt it might have been a solution to the country's growing unemployment problem.
  • The Liberals held the balance of power, but their leader Asquith, announced that he would not join any sort of combination to keep Labour out of office. Indeed, Asquith added that "A Labour government could hardly be tried in safer circumstances".
  • Conservative party 38.0 %, Liberal 29.7% and Labour 30.7%.
  • On the 17th January 1924, senior Labour politician Joseph Clynes moved an amendment to the King's speech that was carried by 72 votes. Baldwin subsequently resigned the next day and Ramsay Macdonald became the first Labour PM.
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Ramsay Macdonald, First Labour PM.

  • There had been an argument in the Labour Party about taking office as a minority government, but refusing to take office in early 1924 would have been a denial of MacDonald's strategy. Since his return as leader in 1922, he had two key objectives.
  • - To show Labour could be a 'constitutional' party capable of managing a 'mixed economy'.
  • - To replace the Liberals as the alternative party to the Conservatives and to drive them from the middle ground of politics.
  • MacDonald felt that if Labour refused to take office in 1924, Asquith and the Liberals would recieve a boost and an oppurtunity to re-establish themselves as a minority government.
  • MacDonald was the first PM never to have held Cabinet office and only 2 members of his government had , Arthur Henderson and Lord Haldane.
  • The big problem was the Foreign Office. Nobody seemed very suitable and MacDonald, whose chief interest was in foreign policy, tooke the position himself, the first and last person to do this since Lord Salisbury. Other notable Cabinet members included Philip Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Clynes, Jimmy Thomas and John Wheatley.
  • Despite pledges to abolish the House of Lords, a 'constitutional' government had to make a respectable appearance there. Lord Parmoor became Lord President and Leader of the House. Sydney Olivier took a peerage and the India office. Lord Chelmsford, a lifelong Conservative and ex-Viceroy of India, accepted the admirality.
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Labour in Office

  • As a minority government, Labour was always in danger of being removed from office at any time, and MacDonald and co. were well aware of this. However, MacDonald believed that a period in government, however short, would disprove the criticisms of Churchill and others that Labour was 'not fit to govern'. In taking office, MacDonald hoped Labour could finally establish itself as the main rivals to the Conservatives ahead of the fast fading Liberal Party.
  • HOWEVER, the negative aspect of this strategy was that Labour was taking office before it was in a position to establish its true 'Labour' or 'socialist' policies. Despite having some fairly strong characters in government, the demands of running a minority government took its toll on Labour over its 10 months in office. Somewhat suprisingly, for much of its first period in office, Labour had great difficulty in dealing with the trade unions who were becoming increasingly militant in their strike activities. There was clearly no concerted plan of action between the political and industrial wings of the wider Labour movement.
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Summary of the first Labour Govt (Jan-Oct 1924)

  • WEAK PARTY POSITION- For its first ever period in office, Labour was in a weak political position as a minority government. It could be outvoted by a conbination of other parties at any time.
  • INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS- Despite having direct links to the trade unions, Labour in office struggled to control the number of strikes during its period of office, Workers who went on strike during this period included doctors, tram drivers, railworkers and builders.
  • SOCIAL REFORM- Unemployment benefit improved, old age pensions increased, £28 million allocated to public works duties (taxes) on basic foods such as tea, sugar, cocoa and coffee cut. Wheatley Housing Act was one of governments most significant achievements - £9 million government subsidy to build council houses - 500,000 houses built over next 10 years as a result of this scheme.
  • FOREIGN AFFAIRS- MacDonald improved Anglo-French relations - London Conference 1924 saw acceptance of the Dawes Plan dealing with German reparations. Gave diplomatic recognition to Soviet Union (Aug 1924), devloping trade links.
  • COMMUNIST CONNECTIONS?- Campbell Case (Aug 1924) - article called on military not to fire fellow workers. Government dropped prosecution case and the Left saw it as an attack on workers, Tories saw it as a sign of weakness. 'Zinoviev letter' published in Times and Daily Mail. Linked Labour's pro-Soviet policy with alleged communist sympathies within British government.
  • DOWNFALL- Faced with patriotic backlash to pro-Communist allegations, Labour suffered heavy defeat, losing a million votes in the highest election turnout of inter-war years. Conservatives gained 2.5 million votes but Liberals were now clearly the third party behind Labour.
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