How Labour Governments Fall: From Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown, ed. Timothy Heppell and Kevin TheakstonThe English Historical Review


R. Shaffer



EHR, CXXX. 542 (February 2015)

Book Reviews

How Labour Governments Fall: From Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown, ed.

Timothy Heppell and Kevin Theakston (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013; pp. 200. £55).

This anthology looks at the factors which have contributed to the fall of

Labour governments and draws out general features across the different eras that shaped the Labour Party’s electoral defeats from 1924 to 2010. Pushing beyond economic analysis, Timothy Heppell and Kevin Theakston argue ‘that parties lose office for more complex reasons than simply the performance of the economy’ (p. 3). The chapters take a historical approach and explore the interrelationship of degenerating factors, such as leadership credibility and ideological divisions. Heppell and Theakston conclude that ‘[i]t is not clear, however, that Labour and Conservative governments fall in fundamentally different ways or for different reasons’ (p. 177). Rather, issues such as internal disunity, hostile media, and poor party organisation besiege both parties and contribute to their electoral failures.

The first half of the book explores the period between Labour’s first government in 1924 and the 1951 defeat of Clement Attlee’s government. Keith

Laybourn analyses the fall of the first Labour government and shows that economics, disunity and finances were not major issues that led to the end of Ramsay MacDonald’s government in 1924. Instead, the chapter argues, ‘it was probably pushed out of power by opposition parties, for it is difficult to underestimate the fear of international communism, to which Labour seemed attached, in Britain in the early 1920s, and what is remarkable is that the first Labour government lasted even nine months’ (p. 15). Chris Wrigley then explores MacDonald’s government from 1929 to 1931, and stresses that its collapse had more to do with its minority position and Liberal influence. The election losses in 1931 were greater than in 1924 ‘because the bulk of the Liberal

Party opposed Labour in conjunction with the Conservatives’ (p. 57). The next

Labour government came to power in a landslide with Clement Attlee in 1945, had a significant role in shaping other aspects of the CDU’s political identity.

In the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters, Mitchell’s exploration of the way in which an emphasis on anti-materialism among key figures within the party was swiftly displaced by the concept of a ‘social market economy’ promoted by Ludwig Erhard and other economic liberals demonstrates how battles over the CDU’s economic, cultural and social agenda became interlinked in the late 1940s. In providing a fascinating analysis of how these conflicts were ultimately resolved through compromises that managed to avoid any deep splits within a still young party, this book gives readers strong insights into the formation of the post-1945 political order in the Federal Republic.

At a time when the CDU has once again reasserted its position as the dominant force in German politics, Maria Mitchell has provided an excellent introduction to the remarkable ideological and cultural shifts that made both its formation and its lasting success possible.

ALEXANDER CLARKsON doi:10.1093/ehr/ceu390 King’s College London

BOOK REVIEW at U niversity of Birm ingham on July 13, 2015

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EHR, CXXX. 542 (February 2015)

Book Reviews but six years later saw Winston Churchill’s return to the premiership. Robert

Crowcroft and Kevin Theakston argue that Labour’s 1951 defeat was slight and not inevitable. During the Conservatives’ time in opposition they made ideological changes that committed the party to welfare and exploited popular anger with Labour. With the Conservatives’ efforts as well as Labour’s voting bloc proving ‘robust’, the authors argue that ‘the collapse of the Liberals was perhaps the decisive factor in forcing Attlee from office’ (p. 80).

The second half of the anthology explores Labour’s losses in the 1970s and

New Labour’s ‘political degeneration’ under Gordon Brown. Peter Dorey examines how Labour Party divisions and the government being challenged by ‘competent’ opposition led to Labour’s ‘surprise’ fall in 1970. He explores three factors, including absent supporters, higher Conservative turn-out and the impact which the Liberals had in Labour constituencies. From 1964 until 1970, Labour expended much effort in dealing with several economic issues and external pressure. He concludes that ‘when a Labour government presides over unfavourable economic circumstances, and thus enacts unpopular decisions, it is easier for many voters to blame the government … than the much less visible, and thus vague, international financial markets, currency speculators, bond markets and “the City”’ (p.  110). John shepherd then turns to James

Callaghan losing the 1979 no-confidence vote with a 311 to 310 outcome. Poor industrial relations, the ‘Winter of Discontent’, Conservative opposition, hostile media coverage and debates over devolution in scotland and Wales proved important factors in the vote, which then led to the May 1979 election.

Lastly, Timothy Heppell analyses New Labour’s decline from 2007 to 2010, identifying a multitude of issues, including disunity, weak organisation and a hostile media. While these were contributory factors, ‘the most significant issue in the fall of Labour was the leadership of Brown’ (p.  167). Heppell concludes that ‘[t]he problem for Cameron was the image of his party; the problem for Labour was the image of its leader’ (p. 168).

This is an important contribution to British political history and contains insightful analyses which compare the common themes that contributed to the fall of Labour governments from 1924 to 2010. The book is at its best when the authors historicise key events, such as the Zinoviev letter or the ‘Winter of Discontent’. some issues that, surprisingly, are not analysed include Empire, race and immigration, which were major concerns for Labour governments in the colonial and post-colonial era. Whether it was Margaret