The 1980s are more frequently cited, but with care, lessons can be drawn from the interwar periodby Colm Murphy / February 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
As Labour’s leadership contest drags on, the temptation to revisit the party’s past is powerful. One place to look is its “wilderness years” of 1979-1997. Yet, Labour has a longer history, and the troubled 1930s are especially riven with striking parallels. Perhaps, then, mournful Labour members seeking inspiration should return to this grim decade?
After all, the 30s opened with an economic catastrophe, swiftly followed by a near-fatal election defeat. Labour had the misfortune to find itself in government when the reapers of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression crossed the Atlantic. Buffeted by the whirlwind, Labour’s prime minister Ramsay MacDonald reached for orthodox medicine: fiscal retrenchment to defend the gold standard. When this divided his own party, he jumped ship and ran on a “National” ticket with the Conservatives and some Liberals, leaving Labour to crumble to a crushing defeat in 1931. Despite the obvious differences, an existential economic crisis followed by a ringing electoral endorsement of the right will sound familiar to any observer of British current affairs since 2008.
The parallels don’t end there. As in 2019, more working-class electors voted Tory than Labour in 1931 and 1935. To build this hegemony, the Conservatives successfully appealed to newly enfranchised women and the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish vote in Merseyside. But they also appealed to a cross-class patriotism (even asking electors to vote for the “National Government”), and smeared Labour as dangerous “Bolshevists” with dubious links to Soviet Russia.
Moreover, the 30s inaugurated a new era of political economy comparable to the paradigm shift of Brexit. Confronted by threatening global trade wars, the British state shredded old doctrines. Despite first defending both, the state shifted from the gold standard to devaluation and from free trade to protectionism. On both issues, Labour found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time—in a weak and divided minority government during the initial crisis and out of power when new thinking prevailed. Despite these radical transformations, Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin (de facto prime minister in the early 30s and officially from 1935) successfully posed as a bulwark of moderate stability. At a time of rising extremism—with growing support for the Communists and the British Union of Fascists, and vicious street-fighting between them—this was a powerful appeal.