TODAY marks the centenary of the first Labour government in Britain. It was led by many prominent Scots, such as Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson, Richard Haldane, Hugh Macmillan, Manny Shinwel, and John Wheatley. Some of them were part of the Red Clydeside radical political eruption after the First World War.

But this first Labour government was a very shortlived one, only lasting until November 4, 1924. That said, it was not the disaster the second Labour government of June 1929 to August 1931 was.

This was the Labour government that – despite initially making some minor improvements – then went on to make massive cuts in public expenditure following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.  

With the first Labour government began the expansion of public housing, public education, social insurance, state pensions and the introduction of some minimum wage levels and controls on rents and evictions.

But more radical measures were stalled by Labour being a minority government reliant upon the Liberals. This meant that nationalisation, sizeable public works programmes and taxes on the rich were not possible.

But as ever with Labour, things were not quite as simple as they seemed at first sight. With many Cabinet members coming from “respectable” backgrounds and professions, there was also a strong desire to show the powers that be that Labour was fit to govern.

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Despite this evidence of fawning to the status quo, the likes of the Daily Mail engaged in vicious red-baiting of Labour with the publication of the fake “Zinoviev letter”.

It purported to be a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), ordering it to engage in seditious activities.

The right-wing press depicted the letter as a foreign subversion of British politics and blamed the government under MacDonald for promoting the policy of reconciliation and open trade with the Soviet Union. This helped account for the fall of the first Labour government.

The next one came five years later and was again a minority one. It was in the end an abject failure, and led to the expulsion of MacDonald from the Labour Party after he formed a “national government” with Tories and Liberals in 1931.

The next Labour governments were those led by Clement Attlee from 1945-51. The first of these was called the “great reforming government” given it saw the founding of the NHS and nationalisation of the mines and railways in 1948.

What is the relevance of all this for us in 2024 with an impending General Election? The historical record suggests that Labour can go one of two ways – broadly progressive despite massive public debt and a stalling economy (1924, 1945-51) or a reactionary way by maintaining the status quo through signing up to a right-wing agenda (1929-31). 

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What light does this shine on understanding the likely forthcoming Keir Starmer Labour government? We already know it will be 2.0 version of a “new” Labour Blairite government as Starmer is lowering expectations of what he will do and jettisoning many existing commitments.

But beyond that, what can we discern?  Very seldom has Labour shown itself to be genuinely radical.

Even the Attlee government, in the so-called national interest, acted to save capitalism in Britain from its own capricious capitalist, and sought to maintain the British Empire.

When Labour do act in a radical way, it is usually as a result of pressure both inside and outside of the parliamentary party at Westminster.

In 1921, Labour councillors in Poplar in east London decided it was better to “break the law than break the poor” over cuts in public expenditure. Many years later, councillors in Clay Cross, Lambeth and Liverpool made the same decision over what was commonly known as “rate-capping”.

But these occasions are few and far between. As one of the best recent books on Labour was entitled, it is a party with socialists within it but not itself a socialist party. After the defenestration of Corbyn, the left in Labour is at a spectacularly low ebb. This means a Starmer Labour government will be free to try to steady the ship of an already crisis-ridden domestic capitalist economy.

Starmer junked any of his radical pretensions many years ago and will steadfastly set his face against any measures that upset the powers that be in Britain for fear – as he sees it – of aggravating an already dire situation.

In other words, he will seek to show to the powers that be that Labour is again fit to govern – no matter that this means no significant material improvement in the living conditions of millions of people.

The National: Keir Starmer

Unlike Blair, who had the benefit of an expanding economy, Starmer is saying “we” cannot afford much in the way of reform. This is despite the first Attlee government showing that even with massive public debt much could still be done.

But all is not yet lost. The revival of collective resistance since the summer of 2022 means there is at least a possibility that people en masse will have more confidence to stand up and demand more than just the crumbs they are about to be given.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds and author of the Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero’(Manchester University Press, 2024)