At the outbreak of World War I, Ramsay MacDonald led a pacifist wing of the party, but the majority of the party supported the war effort, and the party's leader, Arthur Henderson, served in the wartime coalition governments. Until 1918 the party was distinctly a federation of trade unions and socialist groups and had no individual members. After the war economic depression, the growing political consciousness of the working classes, and the split in the Liberal party gave Labour a national following. In 1918, Labour withdrew completely from the coalition, and in 1922 it became the second largest party in the House of Commons and thus the official opposition.
In 1924 the party formed its first ministry, with MacDonald as prime minister. As Labour was a minority in Parliament and depended on Liberal support, the enactment of legislation proved difficult, and the government's domestic program of unemployment relief and housing differed little from that of its Conservative predecessor. Effective primarily in foreign affairs, the ministry recognized the USSR. The party was turned out of office in Oct., 1924, in an election marked by Conservative exploitation of the Zinoviev letter (see under Zinoviev, Grigori).
In 1929, Labour formed another minority ministry. MacDonald and Philip Snowden reacted to the severe depression with conservative economic policies that involved reducing unemployment relief. When the majority of the cabinet refused to accede, MacDonald formed (1931) a coalition government, but he and the Labour leaders who joined him were expelled from the party. Heavily defeated in the election of 1931, the Labour party moved slightly to the left, advocating nationalization of major industries and more progressive taxation. In the next few years Labour found new leaders in Clement Attlee (later Earl Attlee), Herbert Morrison, and Ernest Bevin.
In the early 1930s the party passed antiwar resolutions and advocated collective security through the League of Nations, but it favored aid to the republican government in the Spanish civil war and eventually came to accept rearmament against the threat from Nazi Germany. After the fall of France to German forces in World War II, Labour agreed to join Winston Churchill's coalition government; Bevin as minister of labor and Attlee as deputy prime minister, together with other Labour ministers, took charge of domestic affairs during the war years.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.