When the Corbyn-led Labour Party lost the 2019 General Election, political commentators and right-wing Labour politicians, like Chris Bryant, have told us that it was the party’s “worst defeat since 1935”. It’s a great story… and that’s all it is: a story; a fairy story. Yet, the truth is rather more boring than the story that’s on constant repeat from the legacy media.
It isn’t true, Kay.
The 1935 General Election was fought during the time of the National Government, which had come to power following the budget crisis of 1930, when King George V encouraged the sitting Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, whose Labour Party formed a minority government (elected in 1929), to form an all-party coalition to deal with the economic crises. The previous Labour government, which had been elected to power in 1929, had to quickly come to grips with the Great Depression, but MacDonald’s efforts to deal with the crisis were a failure, and when he proposed budget cuts, a group of Labour MPs, led by Arthur Henderson refused to go along with them. This is what caused the budget crisis and ultimately led to the 1931 General Election.
I have written elsewhere about the National Government and how MacDonald formed the National Labour Organisation (NLO) and was duly expelled from the Labour Party. Lloyd George’s Liberals, who were originally part of the National Government had withdrawn their support before the election, causing a split in the party, with some Liberals, under John Simon, forming the National Liberals (NL) who remained in the National Government, and two other Liberal factions, one led by David Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel leading their respective Liberal fragments .The Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin (whose son, Oliver, joined the Labour Party) didn’t split and formed a large part of the National Government. Therefore, it was the Tories who set the political agenda for the next 14 years.
Let’s rewind a little.
In 1931, the Conservatives urged MacDonald to go to the country and fight as a unified National Government. The result of the 1931 election saw Labour, under Henderson, lose 235 seats, leaving them with only 52 seats. The Tories, under Stanley Baldwin, won 470 seats, while Samuel’s Liberals won 33 seats and lost 26. Lloyd George’s Independent Liberals won 4 seats, and MacDonald’s National Labour won 13.
What the media neglects to mention is that, throughout the 1930s, the National Government was dominated by the Tories, and MacDonald was merely a puppet with Baldwin pulling the strings. The decade was one of party-political fragmentation and socio-political turmoil. Henderson lost the Labour leadership to George Lansbury, who resigned a couple of weeks before the 1935 General Election, and was replaced by Clement Attlee. Attlee himself was viewed as a caretaker leader and it was he, who apparently led the party to what is claimed to have been the worst defeat in Labour’s history.
So what about that disastrous 1935 defeat for Labour? It was nothing of the kind. In fact, Labour had actually recovered 102 seats winning a total of 154 seats with a 7.2% swing away from the Tories to Attlee’s party. The Tories lost 86 seats but retained their sizeable majority of 386 seats, while the NLO and National Liberals lost seats. The Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had previously been affiliated to Labour and of which MacDonald had once been its leader, won its first seats, 4 in total, under James Maxton. It was to be their finest moment, for following that election, the ILP would lose a seat and enter a long period of decline until it decided to call it quits and fold itself into the Labour Party.
Therefore, the real disaster for Labour was the 1931 General Election; not 1935, but the reasons for that defeat and the one in 1935 are glaringly obvious: the Tory-dominated National Government, the splintering of the Tories’ opponents and the grossly unfair First Past The Post voting system.
So why say that 1935 was the worst defeat for Labour?
Politicians and many political commentators rely on public ignorance of political history to construct and then offer narratives that aren’t based on historical fact but which sound plausible. If you’re a Thatcherite, history began in 1979; 1997, if you’re a Blairite. The years before 1979 tend to be obscured by the fog of myths, untruths, half-truths and outright lies, much of it generated by the legacy media (viz the Winston Churchill myth). I have lost count of the number of times, I’ve been told by someone on Twitter how the 3-day week happened under the Labour governments of 1974-1975. Tellingly, they are unable to name the Prime Ministers who led those governments.