Wakefield and the revival of Labour Britain
After an electoral disaster in the 1930s, Wakefield kickstarted the new Labour era. Can it do the same for Starmer?
It was the Autumn of 1931. As the voters headed to the polls, British politics was in a state of confusion, inertia and instability. Rocked by the economic fallout of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the Labour Government’s inevitable “forward march” of socialism appeared to be faltering at the final hurdle. On the right, Oswald Moseley broke away to form his New Party, while the rest of the party refused to sign up for huge cuts to unemployment benefits to prevent a sterling crisis.
The pressure eventually proved too much for the Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, who offered his resignation to the King. Yet rather than allow him to move swiftly onto the opposition benches, the King urged him to put country before party and form a government with the Liberals and the Conservatives. To the surprise of many, the man who had steered the Labour Party from the trade union back rooms of the North to the corridors of power, agreed to do so.
For the Labour Party, the crisis presented itself as an opportunity for renewal. As Macdonald broke away, most of the party refused to support the National Government. At a Labour conference in Scarborough, delegates broke into “hysterical cheers” at the announcement of a general election and the prospect of taking on the turncoats. “It’s the bankers vs the people election,” Labour leader Arthur Henderson declared. “Three cheers for socialism.”
On the campaign trail, those who had switched parties were hassled and harangued wherever they went. In Tilbury, Macdonald’s son had to be rescued by the police after he was ambushed by a group of angry Labour supporters. Once revered Labour figures such as Jimmy Thomas were heckled by cries of “traitor”, and chants of “we are not going to be starved into silence” by Labour supporters.
Many expected the Labour Party to become a footnote in history
In Seaham, a constituency occupied by thousands of miners, many people expected the Prime Minister to lose his seat. When Macdonald arrived at a “shabby old movie theatre” to address the miners, he was met with a chorus of boos. Yet, as one US journalist observed, he still had an emotional connection to Labour people. He told them that he had “not changed a single idea or ideal that has guided me throughout my political life”. When a New York Times writer arrived in the North East to chronicle the campaign, he marvelled at his ability to connect with an audience by making a speech without notes: “An English political speech is more conversational and informal yet more effective than the dull and solemn pronouncements” which were coming to dominate US politics.
Macdonald’s gamble worked. In a night of shocks, Labour lost millions of votes, not just in the south and the midlands, but in the heavily industrialised north. For Clement Attlee, the loss of pit town St Helens “shattered” him and forced him to finally go to bed despondent. By the time he woke up, the party he had helped build was in ruins. Labour’s number of seats declined catastrophically from 288 to 52, and figures such as Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Ellen Wilkinson were gone. One defeated candidate was found sitting alone in a Labour club with his head in his hands: “This is the end of Labour.”
Many people expected the Labour Party to become a footnote in history. The Chancellor Philip Snowden who, along with Macdonald, had built the party up from nothing, thought that the party had only itself to blame: “The party, by their own folly, lack of courage in leadership and misunderstanding of the popular spirit” had turned away from the voters. The working class, he argued, “have put national interests before party at this election, without in the least changing their political and social ideas”.
That same question, of putting national interests before long-standing party interests, was put to traditional Labour voters at the 2019 “crisis” election. As Boris Johnson urged people to break with generational ties across the Midlands and the North to end the “paralysis” of Brexit, he promised that a Conservative landslide would “unleash” new opportunities for Britain. The voters responded by backing him in one of the great realignment elections.
In the wake of his victory, a “humble” Boris Johnson acknowledged that many voters would have “quivered over the ballot paper” as they made their decision. They may think that they would return to Labour at the next election. “And if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me, that you have put your trust in us, and I and we will never take your support for granted.”
In Wakefield this week, the Conservative Party will find out whether Johnson has taken those Labour voters for granted. For much of the twentieth century, Wakefield was rock solidly Labour. An area comprised of the traditional unionised heavy industries, there were thousands of coal miners, railway workers and engineers, as well as textile workers in the spinning and cloth factories.
Today, the industrial heritage remains an important part of the city’s identity. A fortnight ago, hundreds of people gathered to unveil a memorial for the miners who worked underground in six collieries. But at the last election, many voted for the Conservative Party for the first time. And it was on the streets of Wakefield where Johnson symbolically stood in front of a group police officers and promised that he would sooner “die in a ditch” than delay Brexit any longer.
Johnson delivered Brexit, but the levelling up of Wakefield remains a much harder task. Among the list of priorities for local people is the prevention of the “brain drain” of talented young people to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. One hope is that local bus services — hampered further by the current dispute between Arriva and Unite — can be improved to make it easier for people to travel around the city.
Others hope that the long awaited £22m upgrade of Belle Vue — the historic venue of the town’s rugby league side — can bring modernisation and the revival of the club as force within the sport. New opportunities for jobs might even revive the night time economy. After the closure of the Central Park, Roof Top Gardens and Casanova nightclubs in recent years, Wakefield’s reputation as a top party city has been hit.
Arthur Greenwood was sent in to recapture the working class voters
But while there is a clamour for change, there is little expectation that the government, and politics more generally, can be the force to turn things around. The prospect of Labour taking its first seat off the Conservatives in a by-election for a decade has inevitably switched minds to what a Keir Starmer government would look like. Almost a decade has passed since the US political strategist David Axelrod characterised Labour’s philosophy as “Vote Labour and win a microwave”. But the one current Labour policy that has cut through — the Windfall tax — remains firmly in the era of retail politics, where voters will be given much needed cash if they come back to Labour.
In the early days of his leadership, Keir Starmer argued that Covid had created the climate for a radical 1945-esque change: “I believe there’s a mood in the air which we don’t detect often in Britain. It was there in 1945, after the sacrifice of war, and it’s there again now.” At a time of economic upheaval, spiralling inflation, a housing crisis, a high tax burden, a labour shortage and a government drifting at its core, people are looking at Labour to narrate the current crisis and offer a solution.
In his forthcoming book The Death of Consensus, the BBC documentary maker Phil Tinline traces how political crises — such as the one we have lived through for the past decade — have often created a battleground for ideas and eventually a new settlement. It was there in the 1930s, when Labour politicians such as Arthur Greenwood turned the fear of unemployment into a compelling and wide-ranging narrative for radical change. It was there again at the end of the 1970s when Mrs Thatcher turned the crisis of trade unionism into mass popular support for her programme.
If Starmer is looking for historical parallels, Wakefield might just be the place to provide it. Back in 1931, in the immediate aftermath of the Labour’s historic election defeat, the new Conservative MP for Wakefield died of bronchitis before he could even make his maiden speech to Parliament. With the Party desperate for a big hitter to come back into Parliament to boost the Labour ranks, Arthur Greenwood was sent in to recapture the working class voters. In a tough-fought contest, where debates over tariff reform and rising beer duty dominated, Labour snuck home by just 300 votes. For the new Labour leader George Lansbury it was a signal that the Labour Party might survive after all. “This is the beginning of the end of the subterfuge and humbug which placed this government in power”.
Greenwood’s arrival in the Commons proved to be a significant moment in Britain’s post-war story. He and Clement Attlee rebuilt Labour from its ruins. By September 1939, with Britain on the brink of war, Greenwood was urged to “Speak for England” in the country’s darkest hour. “I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain, and all that Britain stands for, and human civilisation are in peril,” he said.
But it was as a Minister in Churchill’s War Cabinet that Greenwood made his most decisive intervention to shape the post-war consensus. Tasked with preparing for reconstruction, he appointed Sir William Beveridge to chair a committee on welfare reform. Beveridge was at first unsure about what impact he could have, but Greenwood convinced the media that it would be a big, bold offer to change the nature of the British state. “There are two words graven on the hearts of the overwhelming mass of men and women,” he announced: “Never again”.
As Tinline points out in The Death of Consensus, the Beveridge Report caught the public imagination to such an extent that people queued for miles just to purchase a copy. In the Commons, Greenwood praised the public for “having read about it, having talked about it, having thought about it” and for pressuring politicians to act. “They ask; indeed, they demand, an answer”. As the fabric of British society appears to be creaking — a never ending crisis in the NHS, chaos at airports and the prospect of a wild Summer of discontent — the public is again looking to politicians to find the solutions. If we are living in a 1945 moment, as Starmer has argued, he will need to convince the people of Wakefield that he has the answers to their problems.
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