History / Politics

Politician of the Year (dead)

artwork-George-Lansbury

He died 75 years ago, and long since seemed to have disappeared into the detail of history, but George Lansbury (1859-1940) has been enjoying something of a renaissance of interest in recent times.

His name began to crop up in 2010, when there were last-minute whispers about ditching Gordon Brown as Labour leader before he could damage the party in the general election. Then he returned last year, when there was similar talk about Ed Miliband. And he really came into his own in the summer of this year, when Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the frontrunner in the leadership stakes.

Because there are really only three things that most people know about Lansbury. First, he’s the only Labour leader to have been removed from office by the party. Second, he was a pacifist. And third, he was the grandfather of Angela Lansbury from Murder, She Wrote. Admittedly, that third fact isn’t particularly relevant, but the first two seem to have some bearing on the present situation in the Labour Party.

lansbury-graph-1

George Lansbury became Labour leader at the age of 71 by accident and in the worst possible conditions. It wasn’t a job he sought or wanted, he just happened to be the last man standing and he was chosen without the need for an election, since there were no other possible candidates. Nor was there much of a parliamentary party left to lead.

In March 1931 Oswald Mosley had split from Labour to found the New Party (later to become the British Union of Fascists), taking with him four MPs. Five months later Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader, together with fifteen MPs, had also abandoned the Party to form a National Government in alliance with the Conservative Party. Meanwhile, on the left, the Independent Labour Party had broken its alliance with Labour, and its MPs were now voting as a separate bloc.

All of this culminated in the catastrophic general election of October 1931. The various parties that constituted the National Government (including MacDonald’s National Labour) won 554 seats, while Labour was reduced to a bare rump of 46 MPs, losing four-fifths of its representation. The only survivor of the 1929-31 Labour cabinet was Lansbury, so he became leader by default, though he never felt comfortable with the title, preferring to call himself the ‘spokesman of my colleagues in the House of Commons’. [1]

And yet, from that appalling position, Labour began to fight back, winning 154 seats in 1935 and, in the election after that (postponed until 1945 because of the Second World War), achieving its most impressive ever victory, in a landslide that saw 393 MPs returned to Parliament.

The credit for that recovery is generally given to Lansbury’s deputy Clement Attlee, who took over as leader just 20 days before the 1935 election, but there have been some prepared to pay tribute to Lansbury’s contribution. ‘At that moment [1931] the party was facing the most dangerous crisis in its history,’ wrote Michael Foot. ‘Without Lansbury and what he stood for, the whole Labour movement would have been wiped off the map. [2]

Attlee himself was more generous still in his praise:

I recall a leading Conservative saying to a Labour member who had said, ‘I think George Lansbury is the best man I have ever known.’ ‘Best, is that all? He’s the ablest Leader of an Opposition that I’ve ever seen.’ This was true. Mr Baldwin once said that the little band of Labour men had saved Parliamentary institutions. This was largely due to Lansbury’s leadership. One great source of strength which he had was his power to inspire affection, not only in those who were his immediate colleagues, but in thousands of men and women throughout the country. ‘Good old George’ reflected real feeling. [3]

Key to his leadership was the determination to shift the centre of gravity within the movement. The National Joint Council (NJC) – an institution that had fallen into neglect – was brought back into being to determine policy and direction. It included MPs and members of the National Executive Committee, but the majority of places were reserved for the trade unions, in recognition of the comparative weakness of parliamentary party and the need to broaden the struggle at a time of mass unemployment, deflation and recession.

Ultimately it was the NJC that led to Lansbury’s fall. In 1934 it produced a policy statement, War and Peace, arguing that – despite the party’s faith in the League of Nations – it should reserve the right to oppose fascist aggression with armed force if necessary. This cut against Lansbury’s longstanding Christian pacifism and at the 1935 conference he appealed to the party’s better instincts:

I cannot believe that the Christ you worship, or the saints whose memory you all adore, that for any reason or any cause, they would be found pouring bombs and poison gas on women, on children or men for any reason whatsoever … I personally cannot see the difference between mass murder organised by the League of Nations or mass murder organised between individual nations; to me it is exactly the same. [4]

Caught between his personal principles and the requirements of collective responsibility, Lansbury, in Peter Shore’s words, ‘made it quite plain that he intended to resign, simply because the two could no longer be reconciled’. [5]

To be on the safe side, however, Ernest Bevin – general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union – followed Lansbury onto the platform and delivered the most scathing attack in Labour conference history, accusing him of ‘taking your conscience around from body to body asking distant people what you ought to do with it’. [6]

‘It was a terrible insult,’ wrote Foot (who, as an arch Bevanite, was not averse to criticising Bevin). ‘George Lansbury’s service to the Labour movement had been as great as Ernest Bevin’s, not least as we saw in 1931 when he summoned to our rescue the whole rich tradition of the worldwide Labour movement.’ [7]

Nonetheless, Bevin’s assault achieved its objective. Lansbury immediately tendered his resignation as leader – against the wishes of his parliamentary colleagues, it should be noted – and insisted on standing down.

The ignominious circumstances of his departure have largely obscured Lansbury’s achievements, while the judgement of history has tended to discount his pacifist faith in an era of European dictators. The other side to that faith, however, was a decency, an optimism and a compassion so great that many in the Labour movement saw him as an almost saintly figure.

After a speech, noted the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, ‘men and women in the audience crowded round just to touch his coat sleeve and to feel comfort and refreshment’. [8] The historian AJP Taylor described him as ‘the most lovable figure in modern politics’ [9], and Neville Chamberlain, somewhat oddly, cited Leigh Hunt’s poem about one of the great Sufi saints: ‘I feel sure that in the angels’ book his name will be written, like that of Abou Ben Adhem, as one who loved his fellow men.’ [10]

He was a teetotal non-smoker who insisted that it was ‘part of my religion’ not to swear, though he admitted that the House of Commons was enough to break his resolution: ‘The exasperations and frustrations of that place would drive an angel to profanity – and I’m no angel.’ Recording that remark, the Manchester Guardian commented: ‘Yet by common consent GL came as near to it as any man could hope to do.’ [11]

Little of this reputation related to his brief spell as party leader. Rather it was rooted in a lifetime of campaigning in the East End of London. In a long and colourful career, he went to jail twice: first for incitement to a breach of the peace, following a passionate speech in support of female suffrage in 1913, and then for refusing to set a rate in Poplar, where he had served as mayor. He edited the Daily Herald and, as Commissioner of Works in the 1929-31 government, he endeavoured to create play-spaces for children, erecting, in the words of the Daily Express, ‘almost the only monuments for which that Socialist government will be remembered – the Lansbury Lido for sun-bathing by the Serpentine in Hyde Park, and countless ponds, sandpits, swings and chutes in all the parks under Office of Works control.’ [12]

The reason his name has returned to the public print this year, however, is entirely to do with that removal as leader in 1935. Is there a precedent here, some wonder, for the Labour Party, as it contemplates again a decent man who is perhaps not the ideal choice as leader?

George Lansbury died on 7 May 1940. A week later his old nemesis, Ernest Bevin, was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition government. Bevin was not then an MP and there was speculation that he might stand in Lansbury’s constituency of Bow and Bromley. It didn’t happen and perhaps that would have been too neat a footnote to the controversy of 1935 – or perhaps it would simply have added insult to injury.

In any event, let’s end on a happier note, with the words of Lansbury’s illustrious successor, Clement Attlee:

His sympathies were worldwide, but they were based on his love of his native land and of its people. That cheerful figure with the side-whiskers and the bowler hat, greeting all and sundry as ‘brother’, could only have been bred in England. [13]


[1] Peter Shore, Leading the Left (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993) p . 17

[2] Michael Foot (ed. Brian Brivati), The Uncollected Michael Foot: Essays Old and New (Politico’s, 2003) p. 250

[3] Clement Attlee (ed. Frank Field), Attlee’s Great Contemporaries: The Politics of Character (Continuum, 2009) p. 2

[4] Shore, Leading the Left p. 33

[5] Shore, Leading the Left p. 34

[6] Yorkshire Post 2 October 1935

[7] Foot, The Uncollected Michael Foot p. 252

[8] A.J. Davies, To Build a New Jerusalem: The Labour Movement from the 1880s to the 1990s (Michael Joseph, 1992) p. 117

[9] Davies, To Build a New Jerusalem p. 119

[10] Daily Mirror 9 May 1940

[11] Manchester Guardian 9 May 1940

[12] Daily Express 8 May 1940

[13] Attlee, Attlee’s Great Contemporaries p. 3

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