Britain’s First Labour Government by John Shepherd

By John Shepherd

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In 63 constituencies where there was a Conservative–Liberal contest, Labour intervention would have secured the seat on a minority vote and an overall majority in the new Parliament. 19 ‘Over the Threshold’ 31 As the prospect of Labour achieving office had became more likely there was a considerable discussion, within and without the Labour Party, about the policies it should pursue. Whilst it was obvious that MacDonald wanted moderation, many other sections of the party did not want to see a Labour government serving the needs of a capitalist society.

With some exceptions, they came from fairly similar backgrounds and shared an ideology of labourism. Though they often squabbled amongst themselves, and were suspicious of the aloof MacDonald, they also possessed in common a rejection of political extremism. Instead, this group of Labourites believed socialism would evolve out of the success of capitalism, unlike Communists who awaited a breakdown in capitalism that would lead to revolution. These Labour leaders had also chosen the parliamentary road to socialism – hence MacDonald’s retort against Poplarism and Direct Action – and believed the state was fundamentally class-neutral and open to capitalist or socialist control.

Here and everywhere was the evidence of the spirit not of a party so much as a religion, which it means to apply, in full confidence, to the art of government. This tone of mingled buoyancy and seriousness, with its suggestions of a young evangelistic church in bloom of its days of faith, was not the only remarkable feature of the Albert Hall meeting. There was something more notable still and that was the harmony between leaders and followers. Mr. MacDonald had come to say a difficult word to an idealistic audience.

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