History

The First Labour Government and the Promise of Progressive Change

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The coming to power of the First Labour Government in January 1924 was an important event in British history, marking the first time that Labour, a democratic socialist party committed to radical social change, attained national office.

The product of an inconclusive election the previous month, in which the Conservatives won the most seats but were unable to win a vote of confidence, Labour formed a minority administration with the backing of the Liberal Party.

Labour’s ascension caused mixed reactions, with elements of the press expressing disbelief at the thought of socialist “wildmen” leading Britain, while the Annual Register, by contrast, referred to this historic event as representing ‘A revolution in British politics as profound as that associated with the Reform Act of 1832’.

Apart from the symbolism of the Labour Party holding the reins of power for the first time, it is important to ask oneself what it actually achieved. One should not, I believe, celebrate a socialist government coming into being if it is unable to implement policies of social justice that represent the ideals of democratic socialism.

Lacking a majority, the First Labour Government was unable to implement (in comparison with future Labour administrations) a programme of radical social change, and lasted less than a year before losing the support of the Liberals and failing to win a snap election. Labour was confronted with accusations that it was “soft” on the USSR, which arguably contributed to its electoral defeat.

Numerous policy proposals made during Labour’s years in opposition failed to see the light of day. A proposed capital levy never materialised, while the government failed to secure passage of a bill aimed at controlling rent increases. Despite these shortcomings, Labour succeeded in implementing a broad range of reforms during their relatively short period in office, many of which left an indelible stamp on society. 

Taxes on certain foodstuffs were reduced, while juveniles came under the umbrella of unemployment insurance and actions were taken to improve conditions for pensioners. This included raising pensions and extending old-age pensions to all those over the age of 70 in need.

Emphasis was placed on developing infrastructure, with money made available for drainage, roads, and repairs and improvements to dwellings dating back to the First World War. Also of significance was the setting up of Royal Commissions on schooling and health insurance to formulate plans for delivering future changes in those areas (with the latter focusing on the uneven coverage of health insurance in Britain, amongst other aspects of the system), together with a Royal Commission on mental illness law, whose work led to important developments in provisions for people with mental illnesses in later years. 

True to its progressive principles, the first Labour Government reversed various austerity measures introduced in the years following the end of the First World War, which had entailed cutbacks in areas such as health, education, and housing.

Machinery for setting minimum wage rates for agricultural workers (which was dismantled in 1921) was re-established, an adult education grant was increased, and an easing of regulations on the construction of schools was carried out. Efforts were made to reduce the number of unqualified teachers, while class sizes in elementary schools were reduced. The government also increased the number of free secondary school places available, a policy development that resulted in nearly 50% of all secondary school children receiving their education for free by 1931. 

Arguably the most radical measure of the First Labour Government was the Housing Act of 1924. The result of the work of health minister John Wheatley, this humanitarian piece of legislation led to the construction of over 500,000 houses, increased the standard of council housing built, and included a “fair wages” clause for those involved in the building of these homes.

This landmark law was, according to one historian, the First Labour Government’s “most significant domestic reform,” and to me represents a perfect example of progressive politics in action.

The lesson that Labour under Sir Keir Starmer can learn from the record of the First Labour Government is that social change can be achieved even when a reforming administration lacks a parliamentary majority in the chambers of power, as long as there is the will to do so.

Although Labour is ahead in the polls, there is no guarantee that this with translate into Labour winning a majority of seats at the next general election. If Labour finds itself in this position, by gaining support from other parties like Labour did with the Liberals in 1924 it has the opportunity to fulfill its advanced reform agenda.

A potential Starmer Administration should do its best to carry out as much in the way of social-democratic legislation as possible if it wishes to make Britain a more just society for all in the years ahead.

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