Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

7. General Strike and Aftermath

‘You must understand that the Labour Party and its Parliamentary leaders or representatives had nothing to do with it.’ (Secret letter of Sidney Webb to George Bernard Shaw, 13 May 1926) [1]

WHEN the Labour Party was first mooted in 1892 the promise was for: ‘something more than a mere Electoral Club ... It is an organisation formed to rouse, to educate, to unite the vast inert masses of the workers and to give the strength of sympathy and cohesion. It will do more than bring out Labour candidates ... It will give assistance to the workers in all trade disputes and crises.’ [2] Better than any other single event, the General Strike showed whether that vision matched reality.

In the General Strike the Party had to choose between a movement which was in form, if not in intention, a direct challenge to the state. Secondly, it clarified Labour’s relationship to the workers’ mass activity. Next the strike demonstrated the underlying unity of the union bureaucracy with the party and their interest in separating politics and economics. Finally, the results of the strike proved conclusively that Labour’s political fortunes are linked to the working-class movement, but that the connection is wholly parasitic.


Just as the Labour Party has a number of reformist currents within it, so the union bureaucracy is not homogeneous either. Union officials are under varying pressures from below and above. Although they ultimately defend their common group interest, they may choose different methods to the same end.

In the period after the first Labour government (and partially because of disappointment with that administration) the TUC was dominated by left-wingers like George Hicks, Alfred Purcell and Alonzo Swales. They were apparently determined to keep Labour’s nose out of their affairs, ‘erecting impenetrable barriers between 33 and 32 Eccleston Square’ (the respective headquarters of the two organisations). [3] In reality the semi-revolutionary speeches of Hicks and Co were designed not to overthrow the system but to ginger up the unions.

Events seemed to be going the way of the TUC lefts when, on ‘Red Friday’, 31 August 1925, the threat of united strike action compelled Baldwin’s government to subsidise miners’ wages for nine months. In general, workers took Red Friday to be a great victory, a triumph for their collective strength.

Naturally the Labour leadership were appalled. MacDonald’s reaction to Red Friday was astounding in its frankness:

The Government) has simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory, to the very forces that some well-considered thoroughly well-examined socialist feels to be probably the greatest enemy ... If the Government had fought their policy out, we would have respected it. It just suddenly doubled up ... The consequence has been to increase the power and the prestige of those who do not believe in political action. [4]

Labour’s objection to Red Friday went beyond the fear of strikes. Government aid for wages was ‘madness’ and ‘sheer waste’. MacDonald wrote: ‘To think of a subsidy as a means of taking from the rich something they ought never to have in order to give it to the workmen who ought to have had it all the time, is not a policy that will bear examination.’ [5] [1*]

As the General Strike approached, the gap between the Labour Party and the TUC narrowed, for the fundamental similarity of their interests became apparent. On 30 April 1926, with full government approval, the miners were locked out. At the Conference of Union Executives to launch the General Strike, MacDonald made a ‘hypnotic’ speech [7]: ‘we will be by the miners’ side, because it is a just side, an honourable side. It is the life of the toiling masses that we have been striving for, not to make enemies of society, but to make the very best friends that society has.’ [8]

MacDonald’s speech could never have been made by a Tory or Liberal. His identification with the working class, even the demand for ‘the toiling masses’ to be accepted into the bosom of society rather than remaining outcasts, embodied aspirations common to millions of workers. This aspect must not be forgotten. But what was special about the General Strike was that it revealed just how incompatible workers’ aspirations and capitalist society really were. When concern for miners had to be weighed against the need ‘not to make enemies of society’ it was obvious which would be the loser. A sell-out was inevitable.

Solidarity, treachery and irrelevance

The story of the nine-day General Strike and its tragic betrayal by the TUC has been told elsewhere. [9] What concerns us here is the Labour Party’s role. This had three totally different aspects. Firstly, the mass of trade unionists affiliated to Labour gave a show of solidarity without equal. There were more out the day after the strike was called off than before. Secondly, the Labour Party itself did absolutely nothing to direct them forward. No-one struck as a Labour Party member, only as a trade unionist. The claim of Sidney Webb that heads this chapter – ‘You must understand that the Labour Party and its Parliamentary leaders or representatives had nothing to do with it’ – was deadly accurate. The outstanding support the miners received was in spite of the whole thrust of Labour’s policy. Any local assistance the strike received from Labour was independent of the national organisation.

The third aspect of Labour’s role was that while the parliamentary leaders did nothing to advance the strike, they were tremendously active in selling it out. Baldwin tried to embarrass MacDonald by quoting his earlier anti-strike speeches. He misjudged his man. MacDonald answered:

If I have a grievance against the Prime Minister for having read out a statement of mine, it is that he selected a very poor condemnation. I have gone far more into detail than that ... With the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all. I respect the Constitution. [10]

Sometimes the Labour leaders went too far even for the TUC.

In the middle of the strike MacDonald and Thomas were reported as being ‘in hourly conference ... regarding a settlement’, and the TUC was forced categorically to deny this. [11]

Such open activity was nothing compared to the frenetic efforts in secret. When the strike began, wrote Sidney Webb:

we had all to make the best of it, and we started, individually, straight away to contrive some way of resuming negotiations ... MacDonald and Henderson (with Thomas) ... have been all the week almost continuously at work, from early morn to past midnight, tying one proposal after another, wrestling with stupidity, and obstinacy and jealously, seeking fresh avenues of negotiation and bringing to bear all possible influences. [12]

By ‘stupidity, obstinacy and jealousy’ Webb meant the miners fighting for survival.

This hyper-activity contrasted strangely with the party’s national executive, which Beatrice Webb called ‘the Cabinet of the British Labour Movement’. [13] The minutes noted the mining crisis no earlier than 28 April when local parties wrote in asking for guidance. The executive’s reply was that ‘propaganda literature had been published.’ During the strike itself, there is no evidence of executive activity or even that it met. Thus the very first mention the minutes make of the General Strike is 3 June 1926 when the finance and general purposes sub-committee remarked: ‘The effect of the General Strike upon the finances of the unions appeared to be such as would adversely affect the income arising from the current affiliation fees.’

On 21 June the organisation sub-committee remitted that a joint TUC/Labour Propaganda Committee had organised public meetings on 8 and 9 May. At last on 23 June, just five weeks late, the executive itself considered this momentous event, though much against its will. With trade unionism in tatters after the TUC’s treachery it was assailed by the demand for ‘the National Labour Party [to give] a definite lead in dissipating the feeling of distrust and despair.’ The executive’s helpful conclusion? ‘That a reply be sent explaining the propaganda work in which the Party has been and is engaged; and stating that the Trade Union Congress are the custodians of the industrial side of the matter.’

Paton of the ILP witnessed these events: ‘the gigantic machine of the Labour Party, with its organisation in every constituency in the country [was] in the house adjoining that of the General Council in Eccleston Square. On the first day [of the General Strike] the entire machine, with its perfectly functioning staff was placed at the disposal of the General Council; apparently they’d as little use for this machine as for ours.’ [14]

Further down the ladder of organisation the picture is repeated. The party’s best-organised section was the London Labour Party led by Herbert Morrison. According to its 1926 Report, its main contribution was to put ‘two members of our clerical staff, at the General Council’s disposal. But this was not all. ‘Particulars of Choral, Dramatic and Orchestral organisations ... were communicated’ to the TUC. [15] Yet more followed! Morrison reorganised the TUC courier system, but ‘the first job that my revised despatch service had to discharge was to deliver the notice terminating the General Strike.’ [16]

What of the ILP, ‘easily the most efficient and widespread socialist organisation in Great Britain’? [17] Wheatley, at least, had recognised that the bureaucracy would probably sell-out. After Red Friday he caused a mild sensation with an article which said ‘Prepare for the great struggle nine months hence ... Refuse to enter Coolieland ... The workers’ army of defence can be increased by one million a month. A Labour army of 10 million can preserve industrial peace. Now to the recruitment office.’ [18] What a incredible combination–racism, class war rhetoric and a ten million strong workers’ army devoted to ... industrial peace. This was centrist extravaganza that confused even Wheatley’s friends. The idea was not repeated. Instead the ILP retreated back into its ivory tower of Socialism in Our Time’. [2*]

The day the miners were locked out the ILP re-awoke. Its newspaper warned workers to watch the TUC carefully. But did the ILP go beyond the abstentionism of the labour Party national executive? Not in the least. In the last Labour Leader before strike Maxton wrote: ‘It is not part of the duty of those outside the miners’ ranks to attempt to make their decision for them ... The duties of the Labour movement been when the miners have made their decision.’ [20] In other words, Maxton was saying that socialist politics have nothing to do with leading actual workers’ struggles since they are really directed at winning seats in parliament.

Paton, the ILP’s organising secretary, recounts what happened during the strike:

I wrote at once to the General Council, putting at their disposal the entire resources of the ILP, lock, stock and barrel, for the duration of the strike ... I returned to my office to make feverish preparations for the call that must soon come ... we were certain we’d an invaluable contribution to make in a struggle of this magnitude ... We transported mattresses and blankets to the office where we’d decided to camp for the duration of the strike and await the call to action with confidence. A week later we were still waiting. [21]

Labour – the alibi for a sell-out

The TUC had been pushed unwillingly into a strike and was determined to head it off as soon as possible. Again, as in 1919, reformist politics were the chief ingredient of bureaucratic sellout. General Strike, like any other war, could only be won if the enemy stronghold was attacked. That stronghold was the state. The bureaucracy was terrified by this prospect and used the existence of the Labour Party as an excuse to keep politics out of the strike.

MacDonald did not overstate the case when he said: ‘Never for a single moment, never for a solitary hour, did the men responsible for the strike toy or play with political issues ... I never heard a single member of the Trade Union Congress Committee whisper an idea, give a piece of advice, suggest a move or policy that was aimed at a political issue.’ [22] Four of the seven issues of the General Council’s paper, British Worker, carried an identical declaration that the strike did

not challenge the Constitution. It is not seeking to substitute unconstitutional government. Nor is it desirous of undermining our parliamentary institutions. The sole aim of the council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life. The council is engaged in an industrial dispute. In any settlement the only issue to be decided will be an industrial issue, not political and constitutional. There is no constitutional crisis. [23]

Now any organisation that was even remotely ‘a party of the working class’ would not have sat in its offices waiting official sanction but would have been drawn in inexorably, debating, arguing, suggesting lines of action and attempting to provide a socialist lead to the rank and file. The fact that even the best Labour activists abstained politically was extremely significant. Labour’s national organisation (the ILP included) had precisely nothing to say to the working class. What earthly use is the best way to wheedle votes or make telling points at prime minister’s question time when the destiny of the working class is at stake? As we have written elsewhere:

The Labour Party is purely electoral. Hence it relates to its supporters as a multitude of individuals. The trade union bureaucracy must relate to groups of workers as collectives. With this separation of politics and economics, the Labour Party leadership is always an outsider to the industrial struggle. In contrast to this, the trade union bureaucracy can never completely avoid heading the industrial struggle, even if only in order to restrain it. [24]

Electoralism denies even the best Labour activists any independent role. It is the secret of their irrelevance whenever real class struggle breaks out.

Even the best reformists see a Chinese Wall separating struggle at the point of production from the question of state power. This attitude has a material basis. Under ‘normal’ capitalist conditions there does seem to be a division between politics and economics. Struggles at the point of production rarely generalise to the point where the state is seen to be involved politically. Conversely ‘high politics’ appears to have little relation to day-to-day events in the workplace. This separation is vital to the preservation of the bourgeois democratic status quo. Being thoroughly adapted to capitalist conditions, Labour strives to perpetuate the separation of politics and economics, even when a revolutionary opportunity is to hand. It leaves collective action to the unions (or more usually, to the union bureaucracy).

However, to win socialism the working class must overcome the division between politics and economics, using its industrial power as the base for building its political domination. This takes the form of the workers’ state which grows from soviets or workers’ councils of factory and office delegates. The working class is capable of this leap. Workers can make sense of their own experience and draw revolutionary conclusions, but for this to happen a party committed to workers’ power must gain leadership.

The only political organisation to come near to advancing the General Strike was the Communist Party. Alas it was already distorted by Stalinism, as shown by its slogan ‘All Power to the General Council’, the very body which killed the strike. But even while carrying this awful burden, the Communist Party’s 6,000 members contributed infinitely more than the ILP or Labour Party. All the forward initiatives – Councils of Action, Workers’ Defence Corps and the movements for the control of food – had already been argued for and were now set up by activists in and around the Communist Party. With a different leadership these might have been a basis from which to challenge the sell-out. The Communist Party played a prominent role in running the strike and picketing. Of the 5,000 arrested during the strike, fully 1,200 were Communist Party members. A Communist striker was 200 times more likely to be arrested than a Labour one.

The contrast between Labour’s immense forces and the tiny Communist Party makes nonsense of the frequent claim that revolutionaries are irrelevant to the working-class movement while Labour is somehow relevant. When the class is really in motion the Labour Party has nothing to offer but sabotage. Only in periods of relative passivity can it appear that the make-believe world of parliamentary socialism embodies the working-class movement.

The post-mortem

On 12 May the TUC unconditionally surrendered. At least the union leaders showed some contrition for their scandalous behaviour or pretended the outcome was not a total disaster; across the space of fifty years we can almost hear the Labour leaders gleefully rubbing their hands at the defeat.

The Webbs considered the strike to be

a monstrous irrelevance ... the noxious futility of this mild edition of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ will be apparent to everyone ... The failure of the General Strike of 1926 will be one of the most significant landmarks in the history of the British working class [because it is] the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers’ control’. [25]

Best of all for them was that

the only organisation that comes out the stronger for this disaster is the Parliamentary Labour Party – for the simple reason that the ... strike as a weapon has been discredited. Indeed the agony of the Miners’ Federation might mean a Labour government after the General Election of 1928.’ [26]

Ramsey MacDonald considered the strike to be ‘one of the most lamentable adventures in crowd self-leadership of our labour history.’ [27] but its defeat made it ‘a glowing point in the history of British Labour.’ [28]

Snowden agreed: ‘the experiment provided lessons of the greatest value to Trade Unionism ... I was not sorry that this experiment had been tried. The Trade Unions needed a lesson of the futility and foolishness of such a trial of strength.’ [29]

Thomas extracted the most enjoyment from this crushing blow. He revelled in the strike-breaking activities:

When the strike came ... the working-class had to take back the bitter things they had said about the pampered upper classes ... These fellows – clerks, dandies, even – tackled any sort of job; they drove trains, piloted motor buses, and even unloaded ships in harbour. That is how England tackled her first General Strike.’ [30]

And the lesson? ‘The only real and lasting remedy against social injustice is the ballot box.’ [31]

This joyous dancing on the grave of the workers’ movement was well-founded. Shopfloor confidence was in ruins. Between 1927 and 1929 ‘the number of recorded strikes and the number of working days lost through strikes fell to the lowest figures since systematic recording had begun nearly 40 years earlier.’ [32]

MacDonald and company were not jubilant just because revolution was prevented; trade union action was also discredited. There is a fundamental difference between reforms won from below and those granted from above. The former strengthen class organisation and this creates the possibility of future advance. Those from above encourage passivity, tend to integrate the workers into the system, and so may hold back the struggle for socialism. The Labour Party stands for change from above and requires a tame workers’ movement that patiently awaits parliamentary action. Reforms must come from this source, or they should not come at all. Thus the humiliation of the TUC (although not its destruction) was a major boost for the Labour leaders.

The TUC was indeed brought to heel. Alongside the Mond-Turner talks about employer/union collaboration, it was ready to substitute electoralism for collective action. At its Bournemouth Congress the TUC president, Arthur Pugh, thanked Labour for pointing out the reformist alternative to revolution: ‘The supreme lesson of the national strike is the clear evidence it adduced as showing that the Trade Union Movement retains belief in the essential rightness of democratic methods ... We have had a Labour Government, the symbol of our victory.’ [33]

The following year that former left-winger George Hicks sang a new tune at the TUC: I say that it is now an imperative duty to use every atom of organised strength we possess, and every scrap of time and energy for the return of the Labour Government at the next General Election.’ [34] The Daily Herald, run by the official leaderships of the Labour Party and the TUC, led the chorus. Two weeks after the sell-out its editorial declared:

When we said the gains of the nine unforgettable days were far larger than the losses we were asked by a number of correspondents what these gains were. [The by-election victory at] Hammersmith is one of them. There will be many more. Gone is the notion, sedulously put about by Communist organs, that the ranks of Labour are split, that there is a feeling of ‘betrayal’, that the strike left workers bewildered and resentful.

We see now that the Strike and the battle for the Miners ... has brought into the movement large numbers who never voted Labour before. [35]

If there had been no General Strike, the smashing of the miners – one quarter of all trade unionists – might have so devastated the class that Labour itself would have suffered. But the magnificent display of solidarity sent a rush of new blood into the workers’ movement. The terrible defeat that followed allowed the Labour Party to feed on this. The vampire needs living victims, and these victims grow to love their predator. Workers did not feel strong enough to fight independently but were sufficiently stirred up after the defeat to hope MacDonald would fight for them.

So the most important effect of the Strike was to establish the absolute dominance of electoralist strategy right across the workers’ movement. [3*]

A horrific postscript

The most disgraceful episode of 1926 was Labour’s treatment of the miners, who contributed more financially and electorally to the party than any section of the labour movement. Whatever might be the failings of the Communists or ILP during the General Strike, they did their best to support the miners in their lone fight after 13 May. The Labour Party blocked their way. Appeals by the Communists for an embargo on the movement of coal fell on deaf ears, with even the ILP objecting. Then when the ILP suggested levying Labour Party members to provide funds for the locked-out miners and their families, the motion was carved out of the 1926 Labour Party Conference agenda at Margate. Kirkwood pleaded with the delegates: ‘a levy should be made on all the organisations of the Labour Party. Was that too much to ask? ... Why not give an actual demonstration that they were in earnest?’ [36]

There were sound reasons why Labour supplemented treachery with callousness. The ‘agony of the miners’ was a vote winner; a victory for strikers was a threat. So Labour backed the TUC when it refused £300,000 collected by Russian trade unionists for the miners. Morrison considered this ‘about the only thing he could find to praise the unions for.’ [37] MacDonald lauded the Margate TUC’s refusal to lift a finger for the miners: ‘The proper and helpful thing to do was done. The Conference declared emphatically that the solution was political.’ [38]

Labour’s delay in providing the miners with any form of assistance was scandalous. The timing of events was as follows. On 28 September, four months after the lockout began, the Parliamentary Labour Party suggested a party whip-round might be appropriate. On 13 October 1926 the national executive got around to agreeing. Alas, things went badly ‘owing to the fact that the campaign was inaugurated in the closing stages of the Municipal Contests.’ So it was that in the fifth month of the lock-out it managed some ‘social meetings’ in which ‘the desired resolutions were passed.’ [39]

The last word should go to the Webbs. As MP for Seaham, County Durham, Sidney owed his parliamentary salary to the votes of miners and their families. But he was most displeased to have to make a donation to the locked out miners! What terrible heart-searching he and his wife suffered over that £10. Beatrice wrote:

Ought we or ought we not to give, and ask others to give, to the fund for the miners’ wives and children? Neither Sidney nor I would have given a penny to it if no one would have been the wiser. I gave my name to the Committee and sent a cheque for £10 simply because I conformed to the loudly expressed opinion of the world of labour – with which I secretly disagreed. [40]

How sickening!

A capitalist workers’ party is under stress in two directions. There is the tension between left and right. In the 1920s the chief protagonists were on the one hand the ILP and TUC lefts and on the other MacDonald and the TUC right. But there is also a division between the working class and the leadership. The General Strike showed that the latter is the more fundamental. During the nine days a massive split opened between the reformist organisations and union bureaucracy on the one hand, and the rank and file on the other. The inability of the revolutionary left to challenge the labour bureaucracy ensured that it was MacDonald who triumphed.

The fruits of defeat: The anti-communist witch-hunt

Witch-hunts date from Labour’s earliest days. They began when the party was officially just two years old with Hardie attacking Grayson’s supporters thus: ‘In almost every branch there is this snarling disruptive element. You have got to fight it down and fight it out.’ [41]

Given Labour’s consistent right-wing leadership there can be little doubt it has relished the idea of banishing its opponents permanently. But the leadership’s actions are limited. Public infighting can be electorally damaging and the process of elimination is not simple. Finally, the very nature of the Labour Party encourages diversity. The affiliated trade unions, for example, recruit around economic questions, not shared political ideas. Moreover, electoralism – which requires votes rather than a definite political commitment – means that Labour will recruit racists, multi-millionaires or red revolutionaries so long as each is worth an extra ballot paper. This is the basis of the very real claim that Labour is ‘a broad church’.

So while witch-hunts extend throughout Labour’s history, they are not a constant feature and only occur in specific circumstances. They have not been launched when the leadership feared losing control to the left. When the class is on the offensive the leaders don left clothing themselves to preserve their position. The action of arch-right-wingers Arthur Henderson and Sidney Webb in proposing Clause Four was an example. So expulsions are not a sign of right-wing weakness or collapse, but of its strength. They are associated with a passive or retreating workers’ movement.

This has a number of effects. Firstly, as the political climate shifts to the right, a vocal left-wing is seen as an electoral liability. At the same time a downturn in workers’ confidence leaves a wide gap between the majority and the advanced section of the working class, who are then easily isolated and attacked.

This pattern was confirmed by the hounding of the Communist Party in the 1920s, Labour’s most important, vicious and thorough witch-hunt. The Labour leadership had been keen to destroy revolutionary influence from the October 1917 revolution onwards. In the ‘direct action’ period, however, there had been little that the leaders could do in terms of witch-hunts.

The first phase

The tide turned after Black Friday, 15 April 1921. The 1922 Labour Party Conference in Edinburgh passed a resolution by two to one stating that ‘No person shall be eligible as a delegate who supports candidates other than such as have been endorsed by the Labour Party.’ [42] This was directed at the Communists who, as revolutionaries, reserved the right to stand separately, and if need be, in opposition to reformists.

However the resolution proved inoperable. Communists were not only returned as delegates, they were selected to run for parliament by local parties without hiding either their principles or the feet that they belonged to a separate organisation. For example Walton Newbold, the Communist who stood for parliament with Labour sponsorship in 1922, had written to the local party in these terms:

I begged them to realize what they were doing and to understand that I would only fight as a Bolshevik, and if they did not want a Bolshevik they should choose someone else ... They chose me with their eyes open-prised wide open. [43]

A year after the resolution was passed Henderson had to admit that ‘the new rule was somewhat difficult to administer’ and withdrew it. [44]

The first attack failed for two reasons – one political, the other technical. The spirit that brought Britain to the brink of revolution in 1919 was not dead. It had been dampened down in 1921, but activists were still not prepared to sacrifice the Communists, and the fighting policies they stood for, to please the right wing.

The second problem flowed from the unusual structure of Labour itself. At national level the PLP had tremendous power because of the reformist idea that change comes through parliament. At conference the trade union bureaucracy exercised a decisive influence through its block votes. Together the Labour leaders and the officials could ram through anything they jointly agreed.

However this picture of right-wing domination at the centre was not mirrored at the base. Indeed the structure worked in the opposite direction. The rank and file of the unions and constituencies elected delegates to local Labour Parties independently of party HQ and conference. This gave the left a local basis from which to resist the centre. They found it possible to ignore orders from national bodies.

This local situation might encourage, a belief in the possibility of transforming the whole party, but it was pure illusion. The very structure that allowed for a degree of local autonomy meant it was impossible for the rank and file to control the leadership.

Revolutionaries are sometimes criticised for their adherence to ‘democratic centralism’ which demands discipline in action combined with full discussion amongst an informed membership. The apparent freedom of opinion in the Labour Party is merely a disguise for the untrammelled power of the centre.

The 1923 general election and first Labour government made the leadership hanker after respectability even more. Now Labour was in the political big league. What could be tolerated in a party striving for entry to the corridors of power was unacceptable once access was granted.

Pressure to renew the witch-hunt developed after the May 1924 Kelvingrove by-election in which a Communist standing under Labour auspices lost by 1,000 votes. The Labour executive put up with MacDonald breaking election pledges and threatening to smash strikes with troops, but losing a seat was unpardonable. [45] An inquiry into Communist activities was set up and reported that the chief obstacle to destroying their influence was their strength in the unions.

The Communist Party did not see socialism coming through parliament but by the activity of the working class itself. So it concentrated its efforts in industry, where it established its credibility as a fighting organisation. As the inquiry complained: ‘It is doubtful whether the unions are prepared to enforce a ruling that individual Communists shall not be eligible to serve as delegates to local Labour Parties.’ [46]

When the government fell in 1924 the right-wing wanted scapegoats, and who better than the Communists? Was it not Labour’s efforts to prove its hatred of subversion that had led to the bungled prosecution of a Communist newspaper and forced an early election? And the ‘Zinoviev letter’ added a further excuse. [47]

The 1924 party conference, held just before polling, was keen to show voters that Labour hated Communism. MacDonald set the tone, declaring: ‘We have as much to do with Bolshevism as the man in the moon – except that we regard it as an enemy ... We have not a thousandth-millionth part of sympathy with the Bolshevik point of view.’ [48] Morrison said that ‘if there was any fundamental difference’ between the Communist Party ‘and the Fascist army of Signor Mussolini he would like to know what it was.’ [49] The conference was convinced. Affiliation received its lowest vote yet and passed a resolution that Communists could not be candidates for local or national government. Even individual membership was proscribed.

Electoral defeat only served to whet the leaders’ appetite for more blood. Clynes was sure that Labour would not win power ‘until the public mind is purged of the mistaken impression that the party entertains a measure of approval with Communist objects and policy.’ But if the Communists were ditched ‘we may fairly hope to change the one third of the sixteen million who have just voted into the two thirds or more required.’ [50] MacDonald said: ‘I firmly believe the attitude of the Labour Party in turning down the Communist proposals ... will bring the party hundreds of thousands of votes.’ [51]

The situation inside the Labour Party was clearly ripe for a witch-hunt; but the mood of the movement outside was not.

Just two months after the crushing conference majorities for a witch-hunt, a national executive sub-committee on Communist activity ruefully admitted defeat. No action could be taken. The reasons for failure had long been understood. As one executive member put it:

I fail to see how any member of a Trade Union, who is put forward by his TU, can be disallowed, so long as he pays for political efforts as laid down in his particular society rules. The mere fact that he agreed to pay for Labour representation entitles him to full opportunity to exercise the right he pays for in his TU contribution. The fact that an individual is a Communist, who does so, is of no more consideration than if he were a Spiritualist. [52]

The 1925 Labour Conference in Liverpool tried a new tack. It pleaded with the unions to be ‘consistent’ and ‘appeal’ for branches to ‘refrain’ from selecting Communist delegates. [53] Once more the power of the block vote gave these proposals a massive majority – 2,870,000 to 321,000. But still the localities resisted. Regular reports of defiant branches reached the executive. Disaffiliation became the only alternative, but until May 1926 only three local parties had been dealt with.

The final battle begins

The right’s efforts had been baulked for four years, but the General Strike finally cleared the way for them. The very executive meeting after the strike expelled Springburn Labour Party and the next added fully five more. [54] By the end of 1926 13 out of an eventual total of 27 labour Parties had been dissolved. An indication of the executive’s double standard was its treatment of G.A. Spencer, the Nottinghamshire Labour MP and leader of the scab miners’ union. Despite calls for him to be disciplined for organising scabbing, the executive refused, claiming ‘this is primarily a matter for the Miners’ Federation’. [55] No such diplomatic niceties were reserved for the Communists.

By this time the Communist Party had decided to promote the Left Wing Movement. As we have seen, this was a mistake. Nevertheless the LWM did not trim its sails to stay inside the party, because, unlike the Labour and trade union lefts, it was based on an independent political organisation with roots in the collective organisation of workers. The LWM’s immediate response to the witch-hunt was ‘we will fight it without mercy.’ [56]

J.J. Vaughan, chairman of the LWM, put its priorities in this way:

We have been asked by several people why we do not propagate our ideas inside the Labour Party without organising a Left Wing Movement on a national scale which carries on a constant struggle ... The Left Wing would easily be crashed and with it the spread of working-class ideas in the Labour Movement if the Left Wing did not organise and prepare to fight for its point of view. [57]

The first outbreak of hand-to-hand fighting was in Manchester, where the Borough Labour Party announced it would eject Communist Party members who acted as delegates to Labour Party bodies. In response the Trades Council ostentatiously picked two Communists as its representatives. NUR members instructed their Communist delegate to ‘sit tight and refuse to leave the meeting.’ The engineers withdrew their non-Communist delegate solely in order to send a Communist Party member. [58]

Similar tactics were repeated all over the country. Expelled Communists were re-elected to responsible positions, dozens of Labour Parties stood in open defiance and were disaffiliated. The official record mentions a total of 27 [59], but this covers only borough and divisional parties which were dealt with by party headquarters. Countless individuals, wards and affiliated organisations were involved in the fight.

In October 1926 came the Margate conference. Discussion was stitched up by excluding local Labour Parties which had put forward awkward resolutions. Eleven Communist Party members were either banned from attending or ‘discovered’ and chucked out. Only two Communists, both union representatives, survived the purge. [60] 1927 raised the struggle to a new intensity.

Dissolved local parties fought a rearguard action to the point of running candidates against ‘official Labour’. In the 1928 municipal elections the Bethnal Green rebel polled twice as many votes as his official rival, and across London they received one third. [61]

But in reality the war was almost over. Labour determined to smash the last pockets of resistance at its 1928 conference. This was an extraordinary affair. All resolutions and amendments from branches were ignored. The executive alone could present items for discussion. Even emergency motions could only be brought by the executive. A ‘Loyalty Clause’ was introduced barring association with Communists and excluded them from attending meetings or appearing on the same platform as Labour Party members. At the end of the year the tally of disaffiliations stood at 24. The Third Left Wing Conference heard its chairperson declare that ‘from 10 percent to 15 per cent of the entire movement ... has been sacrificed.’ [62]

The LWM closed down in March 1929. It has been wrongly argued that the Communist Party threw away great opportunities to convert Labour to Communism. Of course, the idea of a Left Wing Movement did not accord with its new line that Labour was ‘social fascist’, but by the time this was adopted the movement was already in ruins. It had fought as hard as possible, but in post 1926 conditions the witch-hunt was unstoppable.

The constitutional left

One feature of the witch-hunt was the position of those on the Labour left who disliked the expulsion of the Communists but refused to fight it as the LWM had done. The Clydesiders said little, apart from even-handedly rejecting MacDonald’s gradualism and the Communist Party’s ‘catastrophic’ revolutionism. Maxton ‘stood for toleration of both left and right wings’, adding he would do nothing which ‘would lead to his own expulsion.’ [63] Forward carried headlines such as ‘Communists, biggest asset of Capitalists’. [64]

The most prominent figure to deal with the question in detail was Lansbury. He began by stoutly denouncing anti-Communist measures. But when the witch-hunt gathered pace Lansbury found he could no longer have it both ways; either he backed the party or he backed socialist policies. The choice was quickly made. In December 1925 he wrote:

One or two Labour Parties have defied the [anti-Communist] resolutions and have been faced with the consequences. The official Headquarters did its duty in carrying out the official policy. The result is: the dissidents find their local party faced with disaffiliation and expulsion ... If they fight on, they know they must face splitting the Party. They and their instigators are the wreckers of the movement. It is hard saying, but true. [65]

How dare the Communist Party defend itself!

Perhaps Lansbury hoped, by keeping his head down, to fight another day. Nothing could have been more wrong. The smashing of the Communists meant the gagging of everyone else.

The contrast between the Communist Party and the constitutional left was significant. When a period of working-class defeat leads to a rightward drift, and Labour moves with it, only an organisation which puts socialism above the electoral game and builds its own base independent of the Labour machine can resist the pressure to conform.


1*. When the issue was discussed in parliament Labour’s efforts to embarrass the government were remarkably feeble, which was not surprising since Baldwin’s speech, and that of Thomas, who concluded for Labour, were both written by that ubiquitous civil servant, Thomas Jones! [6]

2*. Maxton, Stephen and Kirkwood spent much of the time between Red Friday and the strike on a tour of the Western Isles, hardly the best recruiting ground for the proletarian army. However the ILP did play an auxiliary role in the continuing miners’ lockout by helping produce The Miner newspaper for the Miners’ Federation (MFGB), collecting money evacuating miners’ children to ILP homes. [19]

3*. In addition Labour did consistently well at the polls. On 3 November The Times announced outstanding victories at the municipal elections. Significantly it was the very section that had been stabbed in the back – the miners, who now voted most heavily for Labour. Beatrice Webb’s prediction was one year out, but it came true. In 1929 the agony of the miners brought Labour to office.


1. N. and J. Mackenzie (eds.) The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Vol. 3 (Cambridge 1978), p. 264.

2. Blatchford’s editorial in Clarion, 13 May 1892.

3. The description made by Robert Williams, president of the 1926 Labour Conference, and now a confirmed right-winger, see Labour Conference 1926, p. 38.

4. Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, p. 266.

5. Socialist Review, May 1926 p. 7.

6. See Jones, Vol. 1, pp. 326–8 and Hansard, 6 August 1925.

7. The phrase is MacNeill Weir’s.

8. MacNeill Weir, p. 199.

9. See for example Cliff and Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle.

10. Quoted in Tiltman, p. 203.

11. Quoted in P. Renshaw, The General Strike (London 1975,) p. 214.

12. MacKenzies (eds.), Letters, pp. 265–6.

13. MacKenzies (eds.), Letters, p. 176.

14. Paton, p. 246.

15. London Labour Party Report, 1925–6, p. 13.

16. Quoted in B. Donoghue and G. Jones, Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician (London 1973), p. 80.

17. Dowse, p. 128.

18. Forward, 15 August 1925.

19. Details in Dowse, p. 128.

20. Labour Leader, 30 April 1926.

21. Paton, pp. 245–6.

22. Daily Herald, 20 May 1926.

23. Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, p. 262.

24. Cliff and Gluckstein, p. 270.

25. B. Webb, Diaries, p. 77 (entry for 3 May 1926).

26. B. Webb, Diaries, p. 95 (entry for 21 August 1926).

27. Quoted in R.K. Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society (London 1979), p. 177.

28. Forward, 22 May 1926.

29. Snowden, Autobiography, Vol. 2, p. 725.

30. Thomas, p. 105.

31. Thomas, p. 108.

32. Clegg and others, p. 427.

33. TUC Congress 1926, p. 74.

34. Presidential address, TUC Congress 1927, p. 66.

35. Daily Herald, 31 May 1926.

36. Labour Conference 1926, p. 194.

37. Donoghue and Jones, p. 80.

38. Socialist Review, November 1926, p. 2.

39. Report of meeting on 24 November 1926 between TUC General Council and Labour Party Executive in NEC Minutes.

40. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 4, p. 85 (entry for 12 June 1926).

41. ILP Conference 1909, pp. 47–8.

42. Labour Conference 1922, p. 177.

43. Forward, 8 January 1921.

44. Labour Conference 1923, p. 181.

45. For details of the Kelvingrove by-election, see letter of 11 May 1924 from Ben Shaw, secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, in NEC Minutes.

46. Report of sub-committee in NEC Minutes, 27 August 1924.

47. See L. Chester, S. Fay and H. Young, The Zinoviev Letter (London 1967), p. 132.

48. Quoted in Tiltman, p. 133.

49. Labour Conference 1924, p. 130.

50. Labour Magazine, December 1924.

51. Quoted in Sunday Worker, 4 October 1925.

52. W. Lawther, quoted in Report of Deputation Appointed by the National Executive of the Labour Party to enquire into the circumstances of the Kelvingrove by-election, NEC Minutes, 21 July 1924.

53. Labour Conference 1925, p. 181.

54. Organisation Sub-Committee report, NEC Minutes, 26 July 1926.

55. The whip was withdrawn only in February 1927; see NEC Minutes, 8 February 1927.

56. Sunday Worker, 22 March 1925.

57. Chairman’s address to Second Annual Left Wing Movement Conference, 1927.

58. Sunday Worker, 27 September 1925.

59. N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927–1941 (London 1985), p. 5.

60. Sunday Worker, 17 October 1926.

61. Sunday Worker, 9 September 1928.

62. Will Crick in Sunday Worker, 23 September 1928.

63. Quoted in W. Knox, James Maxton (Manchester 1987), p. 76.

64. Forward, 22 January 1927.

65. Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, 19 December 1925.

Last updated on 2 March 2017