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When was the first Labour Government in the UK?

22 January 1924 – 4 November 1924

The first ever British Labour Government came to power in January 1924 with James Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The minority government was short-lived, lasting only nine months.

Their main domestic achievement was the 1924 Wheatley Housing Act. In foreign affairs, the Inter-Allied Conference in London led to an agreement of the Dawes Plan and the end of the reparations crisis.

The Labour Government officially recognised the Soviet Union in February 1924. The treaties signed with the Soviets in August included a trade agreement, but also made provisions for a guaranteed British loan of £30million. This provoked strong opposition from both the Conservatives and the Liberals.

Parliament was dissolved on the 9 October after the Government lost a vote over the Campbell Case, which MacDonald had taken as a vote of confidence.

Four days before the General Election, the Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter to try and discredit the Labour Party.

The collapse of the Liberal vote saw the Conservatives return to power with a clear majority.

The Conservatives had won the 1922 General Election with an overall majority. In May 1923 Andrew Bonar Law resigned as Prime Minister due to ill health. He was replaced by Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin was in favour of protective tariffs to reduce unemployment, but Bonar Law had promised they would not be introduced. Seeking a mandate from the electorate for his trade protection policy, Baldwin called a General Election.

The election held in December 1923 resulted in a hung parliament. The Conservatives had 258 MPs, Labour 191 and the Liberals 159.

Baldwin didn’t resign immediately and stayed in office until the new Parliament met.

The Liberals had already ruled out any coalition with the Conservatives.

On the 21 January, 1924 Baldwin’s Government lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons. The following day they resigned and Ramsay MacDonald went to the Palace to be sworn in.

Britain had its first Labour Government.

Many in the Establishment were worried by the prospect of a Labour Government. After the result of the December 1923 election, The Times argued for a Liberal-Conservative Coalition.

Winston Churchill, who had been defeated at Leicester West, thought a Labour Government would be a ‘national misfortune such as has usually befallen a great state only on the morrow of defeat in war’.

More extreme right-wingers thought it would lead to a Russian style revolution.

Ramsay MacDonald and many in his Cabinet had working class backgrounds. To some in Parliament and in the press they were seen as unfit to govern.

Neville Chamberlain (in 1927) replied to Baldwin’s suggestion that he not treat the members of the Labour Party like dirt with ‘the fact is that intellectually, with a few exceptions, they are dirt’.

The Liberal Leader Herbert Asquith stated that ‘if a Labour Government is ever to be tried… it could hardly be tried under safer conditions’.

Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister of the first Labour Government. He also took on the Foreign Office.

Of the leading figures in the Labour Party, Arthur Henderson was given the Home Office while Philip Snowden was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.

J R Clynes was made Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. Jimmy Thomas became Colonial Secretary. The Fabian, Sidney Webb was appointed President of the Board of Trade.

There were only two left-wingers, both from the ILP, Fred Jowett (First Commissioner of Works) and John Wheatley (Health).

Five of the twenty Cabinet members were former Liberals, including Charles Trevelyan (Education), Noel Buxton (Agriculture) and Viscount Haldane (Lord Chancellor).

Lord Parmoor (Lord President) was an ex-Conservative MP, while Viscount Chelmsford (Admiralty) still was a Conservative.

On the domestic front, Labour’s main achievement was the 1924 Wheatley Housing Act. This Act subsidised the construction of over 500,000 council houses which would help provide affordable homes.

The Chancellor Phillip Snowden delivered a popular Budget. He described it as ‘the greatest step ever taken towards the Radical idea of the free breakfast table’. It included significant cuts to direct and indirect taxes.

However the major achievement of the first Labour Government was in foreign affairs.

Germany had fallen behind with their reparation payments. In response French and Belgian forces had occupied the Ruhr. Ramsay MacDonald took a leading role in ending the reparations crisis.

Labour saw the economic stability of Germany as beneficial for the British economy. More importantly, MacDonald wanted to prevent another war.

At the Inter-Allied Conference held in London in July and August 1924, Germany and the Allies agreed to the Dawes Plan, ending the crisis.

Labour were only in power for nine months. They were also limited in what they could achieve as they did not have a parliamentary majority and had to rely on Liberal support.

Keen to show their numerous detractors that they could form a capable and responsible government, Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour Government was one of moderation.

In July 1924 an article in the Communist Party newspaper Workers Weekly called on British soldiers ‘to let it be known’ that they would not fire on their ‘fellow workers’ in a class or military war, but would stand with them.

The Attorney General Patrick Hastings decided to prosecute the paper’s editor John Campbell for incitement to mutiny.

Many Labour ministers protested against the decision. It also emerged that Campbell was a decorated war veteran and was only acting as editor temporarily.

After discussions with the Cabinet, Hastings chose not to proceed with the prosecution. However the whole situation was badly mishandled and led to allegations that the Government had acted improperly.

On the 30 September, Hastings and MacDonald were questioned in the Commons. MacDonald made the situation worse when he misled the House over his part in the decision to drop the prosecution against Campbell.

There was already growing opposition to the Labour Government, from both the Conservatives and the Liberals, over the treaties it had signed with the Soviet Union in August.

In the event, it was the Campbell Case which brought them down.

On the 1 October the Conservatives put forward a motion of censure against the Government over its handling of the case.

On the 2 October the Liberals put forward an amendment to this motion, calling for an Inquiry by a Select Committee.

Ramsay MacDonald decided to treat it as a vote of confidence. If either motion were carried he would ask for the dissolution of Parliament.

At the debate on the 8 October, the Conservative Leader Stanley Baldwin announced that his party would vote against their own motion and for the Liberal amendment. This ensured the Liberal amendment was carried.

The following day Ramsay MacDonald went to see the King and Parliament was dissolved.

On the 25 October, four days before the General Election, the Daily Mail published a letter allegedly from Grigori Zinoviev, the President of the Comintern.

The headline read ‘Civil War Plot by Socialists’. Dated the 15 September, the letter was addressed to the British Communist Party.

The letter called for pressure to be put on the Government to see the recent Anglo-Russian treaties ratified. This would make it easier to ‘develop the ideas of Leninism in England’. It also called on Communists in Britain to increase ‘agitation-propaganda work in the armed forces’. Essentially Communists should prepare for the British revolution.

The letter is now known to be a forgery. It was written by a group of anti-Bolshevik White Russians and passed on to British Intelligence.

Individuals within the intelligence service leaked the letter to the Conservative Party in a deliberate attempt to undermine the Labour Government.

While it helped in the portrayal of Labour as Communist subversives, a theme which had dominated the election campaign, it had a limited impact on the Labour vote.

It may have persuaded some middle class Liberal voters to vote for the Conservatives over Labour.

In the Labour Movement, the Letter was held up as proof of an Establishment ploy to keep Labour from power, and therefore the reason for their defeat. This helped to divert attention away from the weaknesses in Labour’s performance in government.

The Conservatives won the election with a large majority, winning 413 seats, an increase of 155. However the election result was not disastrous for Labour. While they now held 151 seats, a decrease of 40, their total number of votes had actually increased by 1 million to 5.4 million.

However, the election was disastrous for the Liberals. Their total vote went down from 4.3 million to less than 3 million. The Liberals now had only 40 seats.

The Labour Party had increased their lead over the Liberals, confirming their status as the main opposition to the Conservatives.

Labour returned to government in 1929.