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George Lansbury was loved – but it wasn’t enough for the union leaders

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Issue 2518
Left wing backbencher turned Labour leader George Lansbury addressing a rally
Left wing backbencher turned Labour leader George Lansbury addressing a rally
This article is part of an ongoing series

This article is part of an ongoing series:

George Lansbury was the Labour Party’s most left wing leader before Jeremy Corbyn. His willingness to go jail during the London Poplar council revolt against austerity in 1920 had made him a socialist hero.

He was called the “the most loveable figure in modern politics”.

Lansbury was propelled into the leadership in 1932 as a backlash against the last Labour government swinging sharply to the right.

He was popular among members and had support from some unions.

But after Lansbury pushed his pacifist foreign policy, the union leaders forced him to resign just three years later.

Lansbury had been active in East End politics since the 1880s. He championed the movements for women’s suffrage and peace.

This radical mood helped Labour take Poplar borough council in 1919.

Lansbury was determined to bring about real change. As he said, “Those who pretend that a sound Labour policy can be pursued without making the rich poorer should find another party.”

Lansbury raised unemployment allowance and council workers’ pay, and argued that rich boroughs should subsidise poorer ones.

After Poplar withheld its financial contributions to the London County Council to force this change, some 30 councillors were jailed.

Within six weeks they had been freed because of a mass campaign.

At this point Lansbury didn’t see the movement outside as an add-on to councillors, but hoped to give a lead to it.

Departure from this sort of socialist politics proved a disaster for Lansbury.

He was elected an MP in 1922. Labour won the 1929 general election just as capitalism was slipping into one its biggest crises. Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s response was massive austerity. Even the TUC and union leaders balked at the scale of his attack.

In the face of growing opposition MacDonald broke with Labour and formed a “national government” with the Tories and Liberals.

In the 1931 election Labour was wiped out from 287 to just 52 MPs. In response to this shuddering defeat the whole party swung to the left.

Union leaders, fed up with being treated badly by MacDonald and the right, initially backed this left shift.

As a popular left wing backbencher, Lansbury fell into the leadership.

The left didn’t build among working class people like Lansbury had done in Poplar. Despite left rhetoric Lansbury’s Labour didn’t base itself on workers’ struggles or the fight against fascism.

But as the Labour left got inebriated on its own rhetoric on the conference floor, union leaders demanded sobriety.

They had to support Lansbury to punish the right. But now they thought Labour had shifted too far to the left and that he was making it “unelectable”.

So they began plotting a campaign to get rid of him.

Their chance to strike came at the 1935 Labour Party conference after fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Their hit man was Ernest Bevin, leader of the powerful TGWU transport union, one of the Unite union’s forerunners.

The pacifist Lansbury opposed sanctions, backed by the threat of military action, against Italy. Bevin laid into the left, speaking for sanctions. He accused Lansbury of “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”.

This was a devastating blow to Lansbury, who felt there was no option but to resign. The Labour left was crushed and the machine moved against other leaders such as Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan.

Lansbury and the Poplar councillors had vowed never to break the poor. But because he came to accept the focus on parliament, the union leaders broke his left leadership.

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