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The 1931 Labour movement crisis

The Great Depression from 1929 until the mid 1930s, put all such hopes on hold. The major unions had resumed their normal 'contentious alliance' with the Labour Party from 1927 and helped elect a larger, but still minority, Labour government in 1929. (45) Although not affiliated, the TUC were closely involved through a National Joint Council of which Citrine was secretary.

(45) 287 Labour MPs, 261 Conservatives and 59 Liberals.

To begin with, relations with the TUC were much better than in 1924. Even Bevin invited MacDonald to address the TG&WU conference in 1928. They got a Bill to repeal the 1927 Act in the 1930/1 King's Speech, and MacDonald invited Bevin and Citrine to sit on the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) with key ministers and sympathetic academics. John Maynard Keynes, the eminent economist and informal economics adviser to Citrine and Bevin, chaired it. MacDonald also offered them both Peerages, which they refused, though not without hesitation on Bevin's part. (46) Even so, there was little of the close liaison and interchange of views which the unions expected from 'their' government. MacDonald and especially his Chancellor, Phillip Snowden ( 1864-1937), were unduly distant and the EAC came to be a 'talking-shop'. (47) The trade union repeal Bill was abandoned due to Conservative-Liberal opposition, without serious discussion with the TUC about how parts of it might have been salvaged. This did not go down well.

(46) Men and Work, 31--2.

(47) ibid., ‘Snowden whom I found to be unexpectedly pompous, rigid, devoid of imagination, and frigidly orthodox’. 281.

The TUC were also deeply suspicious of MacDonald's appointment of the May Royal Commission in January 1931, to 'examine the workings of the unemployment insurance scheme', seeing it as an all-party plot to cut benefits. (48) Their worst fears were realized as the financial crisis deepened, increasing City and global financier's pressure for heavy cuts in government expenditure. Snowden and MacDonald were seen to be in thrall to these orthodox Treasury and Bank of England approaches which left Bevin and Citrine deeply unconvinced. Bevin's schooling in economics since 1929 from Keynes and the various financial committees he sat on, gave him the confidence to challenge Snowden. When Bevin and Citrine met the Cabinet sub-committee, Snowden's brusque dismissal of their alternative 'equality of sacrifice' approach caused offence and they broke off the discussions, with the TUC, going away to lobby MPs and Cabinet members. Bevin, the key TUC Board member of the influential Daily Herald seems to have made the running, with Citrine as General Council spokesperson. Robert Skidelsky (biographer of Keynes and author of the in depth study of the 1931 crisis), concluded that Bevin was 'the dominant personality in the trade union movement, with an intelligence and breadth of vision far beyond those of his colleagues, with the possible exception of the general secretary, Walter Citrine, with whom he worked closely.' (49) Though more cautious in his approach, when it came down to it, Citrine backed Bevin and articulated the General Council's stance.

(48) See Robert Skidelsky’s detailed record of the bitter exchanges between Citrine and MacDonald and his Minister of Labour, Margaret Bondfield, in Politicians and the Slump, 262-70. Bondfield, (1873-1953), a former General Council member, is thought to have messed things up.

(49) Skidelsky, Politicians and the Slump, 369.

MacDonald, who had little grasp of economics, went along with Snowden, to prevent him deepening the crisis by resigning. (50) Being unable to get a consensus in the Cabinet, though he had a 12 to 9 majority, they felt they must resign as a government. The shock came when it was revealed that MacDonald had been prevailed on by the Opposition leaders and the importunities of the King, George V, to form in its place a 'National' government to carry through the cuts.

(50) ibid.,366.

The reaction from the Labour movement could not have been imagined. (51) Although Citrine described himself as 'one of the Prime Minister's severest critics' (52), it was Bevin who really articulated the feelings of most in the Labour movement, leading the chorus of 'treachery' and 'betrayal'. (53) This bitterness deepened as MacDonald led his 'National' government into a general election in which the divided Labour Party was slaughtered, holding only 46 from the 287 MP's seats it had returned with in 1929. Whereas the Conservatives got 471 seats. (54) It was a catastrophe whatever the rights and wrongs of how it was handled.

(51) Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald, 1997, 620-23 and 646-7. Marquand’s account captures the tense and bitter atmosphere of their exchanges.

(52) Citrine, Men and Work, 287.

(53) Bullock devotes an entire chapter to ‘The 1931 Crisis’ justifying Bevin and the General Council’s part. Ernest Bevin – Trade Union Leader, 476-503.

(54) See also Robert Taylor’s account, TUC, 52-9.

In his many subsequent references to it, Citrine gives the impression that he deeply regretted that they had not been able to reach a compromise with MacDonald and Snowden, whom he still blamed for their behavior in handling the crisis. As Prime Minister and TUC General Secretary, they continued to have dealings but MacDonald cut an increasingly sad figure, from the powerful orator and leader who had helped create the Labour Party. Citrine was one of the few in the Labour movement who had 'a good word to say' for MacDonald after 1931 and their relations remained civil. (55)

(55) ibid., 291.

An important fall-out from the disastrous political rout of 1931 for Labour was that it completely changed the dynamic within the Labour movement. It was the TUC under Citrine and Bevin who now began to dominate Labour Party policy-making through a revitalized National Joint Council, of which Citrine was joint secretary. Their far closer liaison and relations with a new generation of Labour leaders - George Lansbury, Clement Attlee, Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison - would lead to electoral recovery by 1935. More significantly, it would issue in a far more radical programme which reflected industrial as well as social objectives.