This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
Ramsay MacDonald – the merest mention of that name in some Labour circles is still sometimes met, even today, with a one word reply – traitor. As the prime minister, who left Labour to form the National Government in 1931, maybe that’s a deserved reputation. Yet, as this election address from 1895 shows, perhaps it was not always so.
The leaflet from MacDonald’s first and unsuccessful campaign in Southampton shows another MacDonald – socialist, trailblazer, firebrand. Here, he calls for a minimum wage, reform of Lords, devolution for Scotland, Wales and Ireland – pledges only delivered 101 years later by the party led by his successor as prime minister, Tony Blair. He leads the charge on equal votes for women – still, amazingly 33 years away. He argues for an eight-hour day, and trade union rights. He makes the case for rail and coal nationalisation – later actioned by Clement Attlee’s post-Second World War government. His driving passion for social justice shines through. In Southampton, in these Victorian times, this must indeed have been a radical programme for change.
Later, as party secretary and Labour MP for, in turn Leicester, Aberavon and Seaham, he drove Labour to its first government in 1924, and later 1929, he became Labour’s first prime minister on the way. Then he threw it all away – a prime minister heading a Conservative government, a prisoner of Tory MPs ready to pounce.
He ended his political life, not just defeated, but humiliated by Manny Shinwell in the coalfields of Durham in the 1935 election. Although, he was later elected again for the Combined Scottish Universities, his political life was effectively over.
Out of politics, he was a broken man, soon after dying on a sea cruise in 1937. So, a traitor? A visionary? A political giant? A revolutionary? You decide. But for me, this is an historic piece of memorabilia and one that still, 116 years later, makes me proud of my party’s roots and what we (eventually) helped to achieve.
David Hanson is the Labour MP for Delyn