George Lansbury was one of the most popular figures on the left of the Labour Party. Consequently he is still patronised and reviled by newspaper columnists, and Historian AJP Taylor claimed Lansbury’s Lido on the Serpentine was the only lasting achievement of the 1929 Labour government. Given that the current government will leave the derelict Dome as its only memorial, Lansbury’s open air swimming pool looks more impressive.
John Shepherd’s biography shows Lansbury’s achievement went well beyond his Lido. Most importantly, Shepherd restores Lansbury’s role as a campaigner and fighter as well as minister and party leader.
Lansbury was first politically active in the Liberal Party. The sometime charcoal factory hand, railway checker, coal hauler, coffee bar manager and wood veneer dryer, educated in east London at a cost of four pennies a week to his mother, became a successful agent for Liberal MPs, backing ‘Lib-Lab’ politics, where a few trade unionists were allowed to sit in the Commons as Liberals. He was angered that leading Lib-Labbers like Sidney Webb thought the eight-hour day must be held back ‘until the iron and coal masters of the north had been won over’. Believing ‘liberalism would progress just so far as the great capitalist money bags would let it’ Lansbury joined the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party.
Lansbury’s parliamentary socialism meant more than just getting elected: He used mass extraparliamentary action to get the wheels moving. Lansbury led a number of ‘mass deputations of working women’ to Westminster demanding better relief for the poor in the 1900s, and took part in Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘Right to Work’ demonstrations in the same period. When elected to Poplar council, he led a rates rebellion. He and his fellow east London councillors went to prison rather than cut back welfare spending.
As a minister in the 1929 Labour government, Lansbury saw the weakness of parliamentary reform close up. He reported that ‘there were four ministers and again about two dozen civil servants. Not a single one of the latter was in favour of Labour’s policy to extend pensions and raise the school-leaving age… This is just where the whole policy of a Labour government depending on civil service experts to determine whether socialist policy is right or wrong must break down.’ He saw extraparliamentary pressure as a counterbalance to this conservative deadweight.
Lansbury’s campaigning spirit owes something to a decade’s membership of the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist party – years that Shepherd’s biography brings back into focus. Henry Hyndman, a top hat wearing toff who led unemployed demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, led the SDF. It provided a training school for many of the left wing leaders of the next century. Lansbury was the party’s organiser for ten years, and travelled in the same circles as Eleanor Marx, Tom Mann and other prominent 1880s socialists.
Lansbury helped found two newspapers, the campaigning Daily Herald (later sold to the TUC which sold it on to become the paper it is today – the Sun) and Labour Weekly. Through these papers Lansbury led the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign. It defended the new revolutionary Russian government from allied military intervention, a campaign which culminated in East End dockers refusing to load the SS Jolly George with guns for Polish anti-Bolshevik forces. Lansbury’s newspapers also powerfully backed – but did not lead – the industrial unrest leading to the General Strike.
Lansbury unexpectedly became Labour leader when MacDonald’s defection to the National Government decimated the parliamentary party. He resigned in 1935, when the party turned against his pacifism as an inadequate response to the rise of European dictators. Ernie Bevin accused him of ‘hawking [his] conscience around’ peace conferences while fascist aggression threatened. The Labour right nostalgically returned to Bevin v Lansbury most recently as a justification for Blair’s warmongering.
Lansbury was, as Shepherd’s subtitle suggests, ‘at the heart of old Labour’, but he shows too that he was ‘the only recognised left winger’ in the 1929 Labour government, as the rotten heads of Old Labour – Macdonald, Snowden, Clynes – dominated the party.
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