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The leader the party forgot

George Lansbury’s Christian socialism drove him to fight war and social inequality, writes BOB HOLMAN

HE WAS a Christian socialist who rebuilt the Labour Party after its worst ever electoral defeat, but appears to have been forgotten by the current party leadership. 

No, not Tony Blair — but George Lansbury. 

Born into poverty in Suffolk in 1859, he grew up in the East End of London where he became attracted to socialism and then to Christianity by the Vicar of Whitechapel who reached out to working-class people. 

But he became disillusioned with the church due to other clergymen who tolerated poverty and opposed strikes. 

In the 1890s he became a leading member of the Social Democratic Federation, standing as an anti-war candidate in 1900 when he fought a spirited campaign in Bromley and Bow and won nearly 2,500 votes. In 1903 he resigned from the SDF and joined the Independent Labour Party.

In 1910 he became convinced that real Christianity was on the side of the poor and he became a life-long member of Bow Church. In the same year he was elected to Parliament but lost his seat in 1912. In that year he helped establish the Daily Herald and became its editor. 

He was a pacifist who opposed World War I. This year marks the centenary of the war’s start yet the many writings and events have made little mention of Lansbury’s opposition to it. Under his editorship the Herald took a brave anti-war stance at a time of heightened jingoism.

In 1922 he left the paper and returned to Parliament. In 1932 he became leader of the Labour Party after an election in which its number of MPs had been decimated to 52.

My parents called him “Good Old George.” 

The late Michael Foot told me in an interview: “The rebuilding of the party after the 1931 catastrophe was heroic — a combined feat of idealism and pragmatism, and George Lansbury was its embodiment.” 

A socialist and egalitarian, his name never seems to cross the lips of present Labour leaders.

During the war, his Christianity enabled him to express his views even though most churches supported the war. 

The Church of England launched a National Mission for Repentance and Hope to show the relevance of Christianity during wartime. Lansbury served on one of its committees and in 1917 published Your Part in Poverty (Allen & Unwin) which received the church stamp with a preface by the Bishop of Winchester.

The press claimed that the war was leading to the breakdown of class distinctions with everyone pulling together — a view recently repeated on TV by Jeremy Paxman. 

Lansbury argued the opposite. The owners and shareholders of firms making arms, uniforms and army vehicles had accumulated huge profits. 

They lived in large houses and feasted each day while their children enjoyed expensive holidays. He added: “We hear of national gifts to great generals of £100,000…of cabinet ministers who retire on pensions of £1,200 a year.” 

By contrast, women who laboured long hours in the factories were paid low wages hardly sufficient for rent and food. Over 10,000 school-aged children were made to labour on farms and in industries.  

A disabled soldier was “expected to keep himself, wife and family on wages from 16 to 40 shillings a week.” This inequality was inconsistent with Christian values. 

He continued that the churches’ response was pitiful. With a few exceptions they accepted mass slaughter with no reference to the teachings of Jesus about giving priority to peace. They did provide some charitable help for the poor but with a double-fold limitation. 

First, Christian bodies were often staffed by those from public schools and Oxbridge whose top-down approach reinforced inequality. 

Second, the churches failed to combat government policies which left many ill through over-work and poor diets.

He ended by urging the churches to take seriously the teachings of Jesus Christ about not accumulating possessions and sharing wealth. Only this would enable Christians to side with the poor which is “the duty of Christians—in fact the duty of all good citizens—so to do.”

The book went to three re-printings — unusual for an author opposed to the evils of war. 

Later it was Lansbury’s unstinting pacifism that caused him to resign as Labour leader in 1935 when the rise of Hitler and Italian fascism pushed the majority in the party to oppose his policy of disarmament. 

 

Today gross inequality and poverty are as intense as ever with no major political party prepared for radical change. Of course, the churches cannot and should not replace them but it is encouraging that — Lansbury-like — they are prepared to protest. 

The Very Reverend Kevin Holdsworth of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow has attacked the government several times and declared: “We live with a government seemingly intent on robbing the poorest while giving tax cuts to the rich.”  

Soon after, 27 Anglican bishops and 16 from other denominations gained headlines in the Daily Mirror with an attack on harsh policies leading to “welfare cuts, wage stagnation and food price rises.”

The limitation of this attack is that it does not specify just how much should be redistributed from the rich to others to ensure a just society in tune with Christian values. Here is a problem for the churches. 

Are they prepared to criticise their own rich? For instance, the overt Christian, Tony Blair, with  a multi-million pound income and large property portfolio reinforces inequality. 

Yet no church leaders criticise his lifestyle.

To be sure many churches are responding in practical ways. The Easterhouse Baptist Church, of which I am a member, has a well-attended community  cafe with free drinks, free fruit and cheap meals. Some users stay the whole time to keep warm. Every other week, a worker from the Citizens Advice Bureau gives advice on benefits, debts, the bedroom tax and so on. 

Again, churches are the main provider of foodbanks. Great but these are like elastoplast when a major operation is required. MPs still receive their subsidised food and booze. While many are hungry, the top 20 per cent in society still feast. 

It is time to recall the life and teachings of George Lansbury again. In his book, he wrote: “I would urge every man and woman who wants really to change things to get into the working-class movement,” adding “and by united effort to establish the kingdom of brotherhood and of co-operation.” 

These words apply not just to the church but also to the Labour Party. Do they dare to revive Good Old George?

 

n Bob Holman is the author of Woodbine Willie. An Unsung Hero of World War One, Lion Hudson, 2013.

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