What a day to be a headline writer on a Labour newspaper. On 23 January 1924, the TUC-owned Daily Herald led its news coverage with the formation of the first ever Labour government. But big as it was, the story had to share the front page with news from Moscow of the sudden death of Lenin.
Born out of a strike bulletin first published by the London Society of Compositors in December 1910, the Herald went through several changes of ownership and political emphasis until the future Labour Party leader George Lansbury assumed control in 1914 and put it on a firm political footing. Finances were quite another matter, however, and the paper’s publisher, the Victoria House Printing Company, lurched from crisis to crisis until, in 1922, Lansbury persuaded its individual and trade union shareholders to transfer the entire ownership of the company to the TUC and Labour Party.
Turning the paper into its official mouthpiece, the TUC brought in a new editorial team under former Daily Mirror editor Hamilton Fyfe and attempted to build on its daily circulation of 400,000. It was this paper which greeted the arrival of the first Labour government.
The paper devoted half of its front page to the event, reporting on the resignation of Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, the Labour leader James Ramsay MacDonald’s trip to the Palace to be asked to form a government, and the membership of the new Cabinet. The paper even managed a personal, if rather anodyne, message from the new Prime Minister to its readers.
The second most prominent news story that day was, however, not the death of Lenin but the rail unions’ proposals for an end to end a strike by footplate workers, who were mostly organised by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. The dispute also took up much of page 3 of the Herald’s six pages.
As to Lenin – referred to in the paper as Nikolai Lenin (the pseudonym usually used by the Bolshevik leader during his lifetime) – the paper reported the shock that had greeted his death when news arrived at the All-Russian Soviet Congress in Moscow. Page 5 also carried a substantial and laudatory obituary which compared Lenin favourably to Napoleon, and claimed that there was mourning ‘in every city and every village from Petrograd to the Pacific coast’ for ‘Ilyitch – the friend of the common people of Russia’.
The Labour Government that took office that day lasted only until December of the same year, its 191 seats falling far short of the majority needed to sustain it, and in the ensuing general election Baldwin was returned to power. As an aside, the 1924 Labour government was the first to be able to claim a labour historian as a member, with Sidney Webb serving as President of the Board of Trade.
The TUC and Labour Party continued to publish the Daily Herald until 1930, when they sold a 51% stake to Odhams Press – an arrangement which allowed Odhams’ Sunday paper The People to share the Herald’s printing press just off Fleet Street, and the Herald to benefit from the commercial expertise of its new majority shareholder. By 1933 the Daily Herald was the world’s biggest selling daily paper, with sales of 2 million.
Despite this, the paper seems never to have made a profit, and in the war-time and post-war era readership stagnated. By 1961, when the International Publishing Company (better known as IPC) bought both Odhams’ and the TUC’s shares, it was in long-term decline. Three years later, the Daily Herald would be renamed The Sun, and as the decade closed, the paper was acquired by Rupert Murdoch.
The Miracle of Fleet Street: The Story of the Daily Herald, by George Lansbury was first published in 1925, and reissued by Spokesman in 2009. Extracts are available on Google Books.
Daily Herald in the British Newspaper Archive.