Written by Steven Fielding.
Having suffered a crushing defeat, the Labour party has turned to a London MP of pensionable age, a man of pristine socialist commitment.
I could be talking about Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. But I’m actually referring to George Lansbury in 1932.
Few outside Labour’s ranks have heard of Lansbury. If he enjoys any fame it’s as the grandfather of Hollywood stalwart Angela Lansbury and Clangers creator Oliver Postgate. But for those left-wing activists of Jeremy Corbyn’s generation he remains an inspiration.
Lansbury was a republican, anti-imperialist, teetotal, vegetarian who supported the Russian Bolsheviks and wanted Communists to join his own party. History never quite repeats itself, but in Corbyn we almost have Lansbury reborn.
If Corbyn is the antithesis of Tony Blair, Lansbury was the very opposite of Ramsay MacDonald. Like Blair, MacDonald was electorally successful, presenting Labour as a pragmatic party and appealing to voters beyond the working class. Yet, like Blair, many in Labour’s ranks doubted MacDonald’s socialism. And when in 1931 he headed a Conservative-dominated coalition dedicated to taking Britain out of an economic crisis by cutting welfare their suspicions were confirmed – and MacDonald expelled from the party.
If one of Lansbury’s critics said of him that he allowed his ‘bleeding heart [to] run away with his bloody head’, nobody could accuse him of being a Tory sympathizer. As leader he vigorously opposed Austerity 1930s Style. As he informed a demonstration against unemployment, like Corbyn today, Lansbury believed the government’s economic priorities were all wrong.
Like Corbyn, Lansbury wanted to return the party to its historic principles. Even as a teenager Corbyn identified with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, men exiled to Australia in the 1830s for belonging to a trade union. In 1934 Lansbury dedicated a memorial to these heroes of the labour movement in very Corbyn-like terms.
Both men were also prepared to break the law in support of justice: in 1984 Corbyn was arrested for protesting against apartheid while in 1910 Lansbury was imprisoned for speaking in favour of votes for women. If criticized at the time by moderates, each ended up on the winning side.
But things did not end well for Lansbury: his leadership lasted just three years.
As a confirmed pacifist, he objected to the imposition of sanctions to punish Mussolini’s aggression against Abyssinia. But Labour’s conference voted against Lansbury’s position. He immediately resigned, handing over authority to a callow Clement Attlee who led the party into the 1935 general election, just weeks away.
Labour in 1935 was very much Lansbury’s party. While modestly improving on its terrible performance four years before, only 154 Labour MPs were returned to the Commons. If he had stabilized the ship, Lansbury did little more: at least one-third of the working class voted Conservative. Despite this, in speaking of his own reelection in London, Lansbury remained, as ever, the great optimist.
Lansbury represented a hiatus between leaders who favoured an electoral strategy that aimed to broaden Labour’s support by moderating its policies. This approach has enjoyed uneven success but it bore spectacular fruit in 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001.
Corbyn’s approach is of course – like Lansbury’s – radically different. As a result, the polls suggest, Corbyn will be electorally no more successful.
But it is unlikely his leadership will end as meekly or as quickly as Lansbury’s. Corbyn’s position within the party is much stronger: his opposition to bombing in Syria was supported by most union leaders and party members. And if only for that reason, Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to be the forgotten figure that is George Lansbury.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History and the Director of the Centre for British Politics (CPB). This is the text for an audio essay wrote for Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, available here at 17.30 minutes. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.