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Stafford Cripps – a one-time Labour radical who was a turncoat twice over

This article is over 5 years, 10 months old
Simon Basketter continues our series of columns on the Labour Party with a look at one of its lesser-known radicals
Issue 2515
Stafford Cripps (foreground, arm against railing) on a Labour Party delegation to China in August 1954
Stafford Cripps (foreground, arm against railing) on a Labour Party delegation to China in August 1954 (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)
This article is part of an ongoing series

This article is part of an ongoing series:

Stafford Cripps was a man of wealth and privilege. His father was a Tory MP and peer. Throughout the 1930s, Cripps’ politics upset the top of Labour Party as much as his own class.

He tried to pull the Labour Party to implement socialism but ended his career as a chancellor imposing austerity.

Cripps was a vegetarian and a teetotaller—because he was shocked at how drunk MPs were.

The 1930 Labour government needed a solicitor-general.

Cripps, a successful lawyer, was appointed just a year after joining the party. He was given the customary knighthood and parachuted into a safe seat in Bristol. He was not seen as of the left.

The Labour government accepted brutal cuts but eventually balked at leader Ramsay MacDonald’s 1931 alliance with the Tories.

The trauma of the betrayal led to a mass swing to the left in the Labour Party after a bruising electoral defeat.

Cripps moved left into the Socialist League. By 1934 it claimed 74 branches with a membership of about 3,000.

Initially the League was quite successful in getting resolutions through Labour Party conferences.

In 1933 the national executive committee accepted a motion saying Labour’s objective should be “to eliminate all private enterprise as quickly as possible”.

A resolution pledging to resist war by means which included a general strike was also passed.

The lesson of the collapse of the Labour government in 1931, Cripps argued, was that the capitalists would use extra-parliamentary weapons to defend their power.

He urged Labour to be prepared to use “dictatorial powers” against big business and to get ready for civil war. He was pushing the boundaries of reformism.


He also wrote of the need to “create guards of the revolution and create them now for when the revolution comes it will be too late”.

But it was a confused position. After being attacked in the press for saying socialists had to overcome resistance from Buckingham Palace, Cripps rather feebly said that he had not meant the monarchy but their advisers.

In truth the advances on the conference floor were based on the temporary support of a few big unions. Once they could get the moderate policies they wanted, the bureaucrats swung against the left.

Hitler’s victory in Germany and the increasing threat of fascism saw Cripps put forward the call for a united front of all workers’ parties.

The Communist Party (CP) had turned to the policy of the popular front. This involved forming alliances with “progressives” from among right wing and ruling class parties. So Cripps was advocating a workers’ front while the Communists were allying with anti-fascist Tories.

Pressure from the right and from the CP combined with a low level of working class resistance. This encouraged Cripps and the League to slide from united front to that of the people’s front of “progressives”.

Either way the Labour Party and union leaders wanted none of it and the League was thrown out of Labour in 1937.

By this stage, as one biographer put it, Cripps was “arguing, with the total conviction he had previously deployed on the other side of the case, that the fascist danger surely merited abandoning working class control for the time being”.

The centrality of class struggle was replaced with national interest and appeals to common humanity, increasingly framed in Christian language.

By 1939 he was arguing not for emergency powers against the bosses but mundane proposals for streamlining parliamentary procedure.

During the Second World War he joined the cabinet in the national government. He rejoined Labour to become chancellor in the 1945 Labour government.

He oversaw austerity in the “national interest”. It was both his highest and lowest achievement.

This is the third in a series of columns on the Labour Party. You can read the first two here and here

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