JR Clynes, a trade unionist from Oldham, had been elected party leader (technically in those days, Chairman of the party’s MPs) in February 1921. Although one of the party’s least known leaders he was arguably one of its most successful. In the 1922 election Labour more than doubled its number of MPs, winning 142 seats. However, in two ways that proved to be Clynes’ undoing.
First, one of Labour’s ‘new’ MPs was Ramsay MacDonald. He had been an MP before – from 1906 to 1918 – and had, indeed, led the party from 1911 until 1914, when he resigned because he opposed the party’s support for Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Back in Parliament in November 1922, he was ambitious to resume the post he had surrendered eight years earlier.
Secondly, Labour was now, unquestionably, Britain’s main opposition party. But the Speaker did not want the party to acquire the full rights of His Majesty’s Opposition, and some Labour MPs criticised Clynes for not standing up to the Speaker.
The showdown took place on November 22, eight days after the election. More than 20 MPs were absent – mainly Clynes supporters, new to Parliament, who were trade union officials and who had yet to disentangle themselves from their union commitments. Clynes assumed he would be re-elected unopposed, and let them stay away. Macdonald, however, had quietly but effectively organised his support. He challenged Clynes and won by 61 votes to 56. Fourteen months later MacDonald was Prime Minister. (Fourteen years later, MacDonald was out of power, out of Parliament and largely discredited; but that’s another story.)