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Notwithstanding such apocalyptic pronouncements, the government’s behaviour proved to be so moderate that its most radical supporters were to be gravely disappointed. After less than 10 months in office, no significant steps had been taken towards the achievement of socialist goals. The party suffered a heavy defeat in the general election of October 1924, winning 151 seats to the Conservatives’ 419.
The performance of the first Labour government was to be affected to a large extent by the circumstances in which it took office. It is important to remember that it was a minority administration, which had come to power because of the peculiar outcome of the December 1923 general election. Although the Conservatives had remained the largest party in the Commons, they were outnumbered by the Liberals and Labour. Since the contest had turned on one issue, it could legitimately be argued that Labour, as the largest pro-free trade party, had the right to form a government. On the other hand, this would mean forming a ministry with the help of the Liberals, who could withdraw their support at any time.
In these circumstances Labour’s term of office was unlikely to be more than a rather unsatisfactory apprenticeship in power. Some on the left were uneasy about the idea of taking office at all and argued that MacDonald should deliberately court parliamentary defeat with an uncompromising socialist programme.
MacDonald refused to ‘ride for a fall’ as suggested by members on the left and instead he resolved that a policy of moderation was essential to give the party a chance to prove its capacity to govern responsibly. If Labour was to establish itself as something more than a party of protest, it needed to win the confidence of the ideologically uncommitted outside the ranks of the movement.
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The composition of the Cabinet was at one with this strategy. To compensate for his colleagues’ lack of ministerial experience, MacDonald filled many posts with former members of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Only the Minister of Health, John Wheatley, was clearly drawn from the Labour left.
In domestic policy the government was consistent in its avoidance of radical departures. On the central problem of unemployment, the Labour government offered no action beyond the uncontroversial funding of public works schemes. Faced with the threat of strikes by dockers and London transport workers, the government showed a readiness to use emergency powers bequeathed by the Lloyd George administration. MacDonald’s insistence on the need to govern in the national interest effectively ruled out any particular sympathy for the trade union movement.
MacDonald made a more distinctive approach toward foreign affairs, trying to make concessions toward Germany in the interest of wider European security.
The manner in which the Labour government met its end casts doubts on the political sensitivity of its leading figures. MacDonald’s attempt to negotiate treaties with the Soviet Union gave the opposition parties a perfect opportunity to label the government as pro-Communist. The proposal to offer a loan to the Soviet regime, in return for a vague agreement to compensate British investors who had lost their claims in the Bolshevik revolution, was particularly damaging to Labour.
The government mishandled a court case involving Communist Workers’ Weekly editor, J.R. Campbell, gave Labour’s opponents a further handle for criticism. After Campbell wrote an article calling on troops not to allow themselves to be used against strikers, the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Hastings, started a prosecution. When the government decided to withdraw the charges it laid itself open to opposition claims that it was being manipulated by extreme left elements. Conservatives and Liberals then united to defeat the government in the Commons.
In conclusion we can say that Labour’s government failed mainly due to MacDonald’s refusal to pursue the interests of his party members and to instead focus on things that may benefit the country, even if they may not have seemed to be of benefit by many. Also it was the disregard for secrecy of the party’s leading figures that allowed information of governments plans to become known to the nation and, more importantly, to the opposition parties. This meant that it became easier for the Liberals and Conservatives to plan attacks on Labour’s handling of power.