Steven Fielding

What can Keir Starmer learn from Ramsay MacDonald’s failures?

An election placard for Ramsay MacDonald (Credit: Getty images)

A century ago today, the first ever Labour government was formed. Yet even many Labour members will probably be ignorant of the anniversary. To be fair, most historians of the party (this one included) have overlooked the government in favour of the superficially more consequential post-war administrations, especially that of 1945. After all, the 1924 government lasted just nine months and its legislative successes were few.

Formed after the inconclusive December 1923 general election left the Conservatives unable to command a Commons majority, as his was the second largest party and enjoying qualified Liberal support, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald stepped in. Few believed he would last long in Number 10: Liberals even thought they were offering Labour a poisoned chalice hoping power would expose the party’s incapacity to govern and so encourage a revival in their own fortunes. Given its minority status, Labour’s record was understandably limited. But that MacDonald managed to perform the basics of government at all was the biggest surprise – and his greatest achievement – and one which helped condemn the Liberals to irrelevance.

MacDonald was about as unlike Starmer as it is possible to be

But while a century separates us from MacDonald’s first stint as prime minister, the dilemmas he faced and the strategy he followed to solve them remain more than historical curiosities. They are relevant to a fuller understanding of Starmer’s Labour as it prepares for what most expect will be one of the party’s rare periods in office. For it was MacDonald, rather than Kier Hardie after whom Starmer was named, who set the template for how all electorally successful Labour leaders would subsequently act.

In personal terms, MacDonald was about as unlike Starmer as it is possible to be. A tall, romantic figure he beguiled and enthused audiences with a utopian rhetoric that envisioned the dawn of socialism.

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Written by
Steven Fielding
Steven Fielding is Emeritus Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. He is currently writing a history of the Labour party since 1976 for Polity Press.

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