George Lansbury

From Academic Kids

George Lansbury
George Lansbury

George Lansbury (February 21, 1859 - May 7, 1940) was a British Labour politician, socialist, Christian pacifist, and newspaper editor. He was a member of the House of Commons (1910-1912, 1922-1940), and leader of the Labour Party (1932-1935).

Born in Halesworth, Suffolk, he became a campaigner for social justice and improved living and working conditions for the lower classes, especially in London's East End. His earliest political involvement, from 1892, was with the Social Democratic Federation, before leaving them to join the Independent Labour Party. In 1910, he became MP for Bow and Bromley, but two years later he resigned to stand in a by-election in support of the women's suffrage movement. However he was unsuccessful and did not return to the House of Commons for ten years. In the campaign for women's suffrage he was accused of sedition and jailed in Pentonville. In Parliament, he defended authors of a "Don't Shoot" leaflet addressed to soldiers called to deal with militant strikers.

Lansbury helped found, in 1912, the Daily Herald, a socialist newspaper. He became editor just prior to World War I, and used the paper to oppose the war, publishing a headline "War Is Hell" upon outbreak of fighting. In 1922, the Herald became the Labour Party's official paper.

As Labour Mayor of Poplar, one of London's poorest boroughs, Lansbury led the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, opposing not only the Government and the courts, but leaders of his own party. The borough council, instead of forwarding collected tax monies to London, dispersed part of the money as aid to the needy. Thirty councillors, including six women, were jailed by the High Court for six weeks. Council meetings during this time were held in Brixton Prison. Lansbury returned to Parliament in 1922.

In 1929 Lansbury became First Commissioner of Works in the second Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. Two years later the government fell, MacDonald left the Labour party to form the National Government and the party went to a massive defeat in the 1931 General Election. The party's leader Arthur Henderson and nearly ever other leading Labour figure was defeated. Lansbury was the one exception and became Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1931. The following year Henderson stood down from the leadership of the overall party and Lansbury succeeded him.

Lansbury was a pacifist and found himself increasingly at odds with the official foreign policy of the party he was leading. On several occasions he offered to resign the leadership but his parliamentary colleagues dissuaded him, not least because there was no clear alternative leader. However in late 1935 the disagreements became more severe and public. Many in the Labour Party, particularly the Trade Union wing led by Ernest Bevin, were pushing for the party to support sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury fundamentally disagreed with this. In the weeks leading up to the Labour Party Conference Lansbury's position was weakened when both Lord Ponsonby, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, and the Labour frontbencher and National Executive member Stafford Cripps, widely seen as Lansbury's political heir, resigned from their positions because they too opposed sanctions and felt it would be impossible to lead a party when they were in disagreement with it on the major political issue of the day.

Many wondered how Lansbury's leadership could survive, even though he retained an immense personal popularity. At the Conference this was publicly displayed by delegates, but then during a debate on foreign policy Ernest Bevin launched a withering attack on Lansbury. Heavily defeated in the vote, Lansbury determined to resign as leader. At a meeting of Labour MPs called shortly afterwards there was a great reluctance to accept his resignation, partially out of continued support but also because many Labour MPs feared that the next leader would be Arthur Greenwood, widely seen as heavily aligned to trade unionists like Bevin. In a vote the MPs voted by 38:7 to not accept Lansbury's resignation, but he insisted on stepping down. When it came to selecting a successor (initially envisaged as a temporary position), Greenwood's name was not considered and the party instead unanimously elected Lansbury's deputy, Clement Attlee.

Lansbury was chair of the No More War Movement, and president of the War Resisters International. His efforts to prevent world war led him to visit most of the heads of state in Europe, including, controversially, both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He also visited U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

He was an unusually popular politician, an elder statesman with a considerable following. He died of cancer at 81 in Manor House Hospital in London.

George Lansbury was the grandfather of both Angela Lansbury and Oliver Postgate. His name lives on as the Lansbury Estate.

Preceded by:
The Marquess of Londonderry
First Commissioner of Works
Followed by:
The Marquess of Londonderry
Preceded by:
Arthur Henderson
Leader of the British Labour Party
Followed by:
Clement Attlee


George Lansbury: At the Heart of Old Labour, John Shepherd, Oxford University Press: 2002. ISBN 0198201648. paperback 2004 0199273642.


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