Matthew Worley. Labour inside the Gate: A History of the British Labour Party between the Wars. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. 256 S. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85043-798-7.
Reviewed by Stefan K. Berger
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (May, 2006)
M. Worley: Labour inside the Gate
Matthew Worley's latest book fills an important gap in the extensive literature on the British Labour Party. He provides us with a compelling narrative on Labour's history both before and after the crucial year of 1931, when the Labour premier, Ramsay MacDonald, formed the National government in the midst of the Great Depression - a move which very nearly tore the party asunder and plunged it into a deep crisis from which it only began to emerge at the end of the 1930s. As the historiography of the Labour Party tends to deal either with the years of seemingly inexorable rise before 1931 or with the years of slow recovery after 1931, no single history has so far spanned the entire period between the end of the First and the beginning of the Second World War.
Worley's book is divided into four major chapters. The first one deals with the way in which the Labour Party grabbed the opportunities provided by the post-war situation, in which the Liberals appeared divided and a weak adjunct of the Conservatives, who dominated the coalition government led by Lloyd George. He introduces all of the major players in the Labour Party after the First World War, traces its electoral successes and its organisational advances. The party, he argues, was successful, because it managed to adapt to a multitude of different local political cultures through a versatile and undogmatic approach to politics, which sometimes could emphasise class politics and at other times could follow a much more inclusive radical Liberal heritage. Its vision of social reform went beyond the workplace and included municipal politics, in particular housing policies, which sought to relate to the everyday experiences of millions of ordinary people in Britain.
The second chapter accounts for what Worley describes as the breakthrough of the Labour Party to the corridors of power. The first and second Labour governments in 1924 and 1929 were minority governments, and their main aim was to demonstrate that the party could govern the country responsibly. Moderation and respectability were the watchwords which governed Labour ministers' policies more than any bold vision of a different, more just society. Hence their achievements were limited, and Worley emphasises that the continued build-up of an efficient organisational machine was perhaps more important during those years than the impact of the party in government. He also deals competently with the internal critics of 'parliamentary socialism', notably the Independent Labour Party (ILP), for so long the mainstay of Labour activists in Britain, and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
The third chapter investigates the consequences of MacDonald's 'betrayal' of 1931. Worley comes to the conclusion that the electoral disaster of 1931 should not hide the important fact that the party survived 1931 organisationally in tact. MacDonald had not split the party and apart from very few top politicians, such as Snowdon, the majority of the leaders and the led did not follow their erstwhile hero, for whom 1931 marked a tragic march into oblivion. A younger generation of Labour leaders emerged after 1931 who would slowly but surely lead the party out of the abyss and prepare it for government after 1945. He cautions against overemphasising the importance of the party's left wing during the 1930s. One of the most important programmatic reorientations of the party in this period was not a turn to the left but rather a turn towards national policies and away from a previous commitment to municipal socialism. And Worley also provides much valuable information on the community-orientation of the British Labour Party in the inter-war years. It strove to build a community of solidarity, in which Labour party members mingled with each other not only through party and trade union meetings, but through a network of social and leisure clubs, reminiscent of the much more extensive communities which governed the lives of German Social Democrats 'from cradle to grave' in Imperial Germany and beyond.
The final chapter of Worley's book looks at the second half of the 1930s, stressing both the party's inability to challenge the political hegemony of the Conservative Party and its dogged organisational and programmatic preparation for electoral recovery. Many of the discussions on programmatic development and organisation pick up points which were already made in the other three chapters and one may begin to wonder whether a more thematic approach to the history of the Labour Party in inter-war Britain would not have served better the purpose of presenting the inter-war period as a distinct period of British Labour's development.
But overall, Worley has mastered an enormous amount of literature and deals admirably not only with parliamentary politics and the leadership of the party, but also with the rank-and-file. Throughout he highlights how different the party looked in different parts of the British Isles. He positions himself carefully between those who have argued that the class structure of British society played an important role in explaining the success of the Labour Party between 1918 and 1931 and those who have looked towards specific political offerings and strategies of the party in making a growing number of electors support Labour. He pays due attention to the gendering of Labour politics and the many difficulties of women activists who wanted to overcome traditional gender perceptions which were widespread within the party. He rightly emphasises the importance of the First World War in giving the Labour Party the opening it needed to enter the national stage of politics properly and replace the Liberal Party as the major alternative to the Tories. The reader will learn much about programmatic developments, organisational reforms, and local Labour politics. Worley also throughout pays much attention to the close relationship between the party and the trade unions which provided the backbone of the party in many locations across Britain. With this book Worley underlines his growing reputation of being one of the most prolific, competent and interesting labour historians in British labour history today.
If there is something missing in this history, it is a transnational and comparative dimension. We learn virtually nothing about the way in which the Labour Party was part and parcel of a wider internationalist Social Democratic movement. Apart from some isolated remarks on Labour playing an important role in reconstituting the Second International after 1918, Labour's struggle against domestic and foreign variants of fascism and its difficulties with pacifism and the issue of rearmament in the 1930s, there is practically no information on how the reception of ideas and practices from other parts of Europe and the globe impacted on the self-understanding and politics of the British Labour Party. This is indeed a criticism that could be made of labour history in Britain as a whole. Despite the existence of many labour historians who have an active interest in transnational and comparative questions, their work all too rarely informs the content pages of key labour history journals and important labour history conferences in the UK. A sustained discussion of the benefits of transnational approaches to the history of the British labour movement is still outstanding.
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Stefan K. Berger. Review of Worley, Matthew, Labour inside the Gate: A History of the British Labour Party between the Wars.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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