The 1945 UK General Election

‘The Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians heard the news while taking afternoon tea: They were so taken aback they stood there in complete silence.’ ‘Many old people are alarmed at what may happen.’ ‘The Conservatives had somewhat surprisingly got what they deserved.’ Such were few of the reactions on the surprising victory of the Labour Party in General Election in July 1945, winning 8,5 per cent more votes than the Conservatives led by Winston Churchill and representing one of the greatest swings of votes in British history. With the victory, Labour and their allies took 184 more seats and thus gained the necessary majority in the Parliament for the ‘revolutionary’ reforms. The wartime victor and national hero Churchill, who had successfully led the Britain at the head of the Conservative Party for the last five years through the harsh times of Nazi expansion and war, now suffered a great loss on the home front.

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Although the Gallup opinion polls as well as Mass Observation polls since 1943 had favored the Labour party and in a way predicted Labour’s triumph, there were only few who would dare to argue that Churchill and his Party would not be re-elected. [4] Majority of political observers, commentators but mostly Conservative party members expected the situation from the post-first world war to recur as Prime Minister David Lloyd George had proven to be unbeatable after his leadership during the war. Reasons for such paradox, when a politician or a party is not re-elected for their “positive” achievements vary, yet in Churchill’s and the Conservative’s case the reasons could be defined as the amalgamation of the outcomes of unsuitably targeted and presented election campaign and strategies with regards to the after-war policies and voters; shift in public’s opinion; the Party’s overall image originating from the inter-war period of being incompetent, privileged, old-fashioned and stiff in respect to changes and reforms in economic and social spheres at home as well as to issues concerning international order; moreover it was Churchill’s blunders during his public speeches as well as great relying on his rather iconic image presented by the Conservative Party instead of shifting the focus on the Party as a whole and its manifesto. Interestingly, various authors like D. Bell, R. Acland or R. Eatwell assigned more significance rather to disenchantment of British electorate with Conservative politics searching for anti-Conservative attitudes. Plus, because all other alternatives were illusory [5] and the Liberals seemed to be divided and having only slight possibility to win, Labour became preferable.

Since the beginning of the 1900’s till the end of the “People’s war”, the Conservative Party has almost continuously held the political power in Britain with only few provisional gap years defined by the rather short-lived or relatively weak Liberal or Labour Governments. In 1940, no election was held due to ongoing war so the Conservatives were able to execute another political term with the majority in the National Government without any pre-election campaign. Firstly, it was Chamberlain who led the Conservatives and the country throughout the war but he soon turned out to be an unsuitable war leader. Following Chamberlain’s resignation, old-new Churchill saw his comeback in 1940 after Lord Halifax rejected the office of Prime Minister associated with the inhuman task to defeat Nazis and to keep Britain secure and alive, economically and socially throughout the imminent darkest hours. As one of the necessary measures needed to be immediately adopted in which he undoubtedly succeeded was creating wartime Coalition – the National Government led by the Conservatives. The Coalition was crucial in securing relative parliamentary stability, minimizing disputes on domestic issues and giving way to “smooth running” of the war. However, the entire Coalition was interlaced with the ‘instinctive distrust’, towards Churchill and the Conservatives, primarily by the Labour party, what automatically resulted in a break of the Coalition soon after the war. [6] The Labour Party decided to run the election campaign of their own and to attempt to gain the majority with their “revolutionary” social and economic reform plans promising an unprecedented change.

By the time Churchill became Prime Minister, the Conservative Party had already suffered from a variety of severe reputation damages that would contribute to their loss in the 1945 General Election. Perhaps most significantly, it was the era of 1930’s, the era of economic crisis and depression, when Britain suffered from poverty, great unemployment, drops in wages and production, having a great impact especially on the areas with the heavy industry. Unemployment was at its peak of 2, 95 million in 1933, figures in production and foreign trade fell by 15%. [7] As an illustration might serve a town of Jarrow in North-East that became known for its hunger march – Jarrow Crusade in 1936 when 200 desperate orderly citizens marched to London to make the Parliament and the people in the south aware of their living standards – “aˆ¦ a filthy, dirty, falling down, consumptive area.” [8] The conditions, in which citizens of Jarrow and other similar places were living, were longing for decisive reforms that would provide employment, solve poor housing and provide adequate health care. To solve the situation, the Unemployment Assistance Board was established as well as The Household Means Test was introduced that was, on the basis of entire economic assets of the household, supposed to provide corresponding relief. Additionally, reforms of tariff policy were introduced, looking for regulation of consumption and cartel-organized industry which contradictorily to the Conservative principles supported organization of collectivism. Nevertheless, the British economy in 1939 was defined as ‘Feudal Capitalism’; a prevalent organization being uncompetitive private enterprise in partnership with the state, leaving the old ideas of competition and consumer sovereignty in eclipse. [9] Not surprisingly, the imposed measures turned out to be unsatisfactory and verified the Conservative’s status quo policy. Similarly very little had been done in improving the health system and housing. Although the heavy industry sector, employing largely the working class together with the low middle class, was partially revived before the start of the war, with the increase in numbers of production in arms industry by providing supplies for the war, taken as a whole, the Conservative government had failed to subvert the unfavorable situation in Britain throughout the 1930s’.

In the terms of foreign policies, the moral credit of the Conservative party was marked by several fiascos as in Turkish Gallipoli during the World War I. or in Norway in 1940. It was also appeasement of aggressors abroad – a sense of incompetence together with blame of submission arising from the Chamberlain’s naively signing of the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 granting him parts of Czechoslovakia in order to prevent the war. Giving Hitler the impression of preferred submission rather than fight connected with the Britain’s unpreparedness for the war due to a political climate strongly hostile to big armaments, certainly contributed to the full-scale war in 1939 with Britain being drafted in. Moreover, as lesser influencing elements connected with the Conservative failure could be considered the facts that towards the end of the war, the Right started to be associated with fascism throughout Europe as well as the left oriented Soviets played an important role in defeating Hitler in Europe. ‘In France, Italy, it was the communists who benefitted from this phenomenon – in Britain it was the Labour Party.’ [10]

As the 1945 General Election sought its way, the main issue and conceivably the decisive factor of winning the election campaign became practical plans and proposals for rebuilding the post-war Britain. Simply said, the people wanted ‘a new and better Britain’, ‘The New Jerusalem’ with the idea ‘Never againaˆ¦’ No more poverty, shortages, rationing, unemployment, filthy and overcrowded housing, visible class stratification and area division but unified society with decent housing, proper education and a reliable health service, a welfare state providing social security. It soon became apparent and generally felt, that because of the Conservative’s great interest in war, in the terms of social and economic policies, ‘the Conservatives came across as having nothing constructive to offer to the country in the post-war period: blood, toils, tears, and sweat were all very well in their place – but as a permanent diet they were unappetizing.’ [11] The conservatives based their campaign on the reduction of taxation, criticizing nationalization resulting in the need to a return to free enterprise, alongside the rationalization and extension of the social services, contingent upon financial circumstances. [12] The only significant measure introduced by the Conservative cabinet during the period became the introduction of the Education Act in 1944, which formed the foundation for the universal secondary education.

Undoubtedly, one of the most important and influencing events of the period was the publication of the Beveridge Report which offered somewhat radical solutions and changes to post-war Britain society and which represented a milestone in British society of that time. It is important to say that the Conservatives did not reject it in principle. They knew that social reforms were necessary, like for instance the National Health Service; however, they expected that the poor post-war economic situation would not allow putting them into practice. The Conservatives thus showed much lesser willingness in the creation of a Welfare State as Labour and accepted only hesitantly what has been a decisive difference. Although a group of young progressives in the tradition of Lord Randolph Churchill’s ‘Tory democracy’ called for a full acceptance of Beveridge, the party as a whole remained cautious. [13] Consequently, Conservatives then inclined to patriotism and policies concerning national security leaving constructive domestic social reforms behind. It had proven to be a wrong bet since according to polls voters were predominantly interested in the domestic social security issues mainly of health, housing and education affecting their everyday lives.

In connection to the national security concern, it was Churchill’s vision of the rise of the new evil enemy from the Soviet bloc called communism that, as Nazis did, would soon threat Britain and the whole of Europe. Taught by the Nazi example from the pre-war period, primarily from 1938, his ambition was to continue in war to prevent the communism from spreading and thus leading to another war. These strong national attitudes were for instance presented in campaign posters bearing Churchill’s photographs with the slogans ‘Help Him Finish the Job: Vote National’ as well as in his speeches. It is evident that the Conservatives greatly relied on Churchill’s iconic image of the successful and popular war-time leader and hoped that this feature would appeal to voters. It surely was a disappointment when he took his nationalism too far in his speeches, perhaps from mental and physical exhaustion, and caused several blunders affecting voters. One key blunder being a radio speech where he suggested that a Socialist Britain could work only under a ‘Gestapo’ like organization what represented an insult to his former coalition partners but mostly to the Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Another aspect of the loss was a swing in votes. Since the majority of British voters were often seen as conservative, proven by the Conservative majority in the Parliament throughout the past history, Labour could not win the election by solely relying on its own electoral camp and had to search for votes somewhere else. Hence, in addition to areas with a high proportion of manual workers mainly in heavy industry in Wales and the north, the target became mainly the young first-voters, the young voters with high expectations, the tactical Liberal voters and the middle class not wanting the 1930’s to repeat again, all disappointed by the recent Conservative politics, who with the outcome of the election proved to be won for Labour and not for the Conservatives. However, as was already suggested in the introduction, some authors claimed that Labour were elected mainly because of the ‘unfocused left vote’ representing only anti-Conservative attitudes and bearing only very little positive Labour support. Richard Acland claimed that the party was merely the beneficiary of a ‘negative enthusiasm’. [14] According to Roger Eatwell, Labour simply represented a ‘rejecting consensus’. [15] For illustration, one ‘Liberal minded’ business man as an M.O. respondent told that he had voted Labour as ‘he knew they had no chance to get in, and thought it would be good for the Conservative to have a smaller majority.’ [16] In another normally safe Conservative seat, a teacher expressed their similar affiliation: ‘I voted Labour in Norwich with the intention to lessen the Tory majority.’ [17]

The Conservatives also failed to appeal to those serving in the war as soldiers or service personnel although it is sometimes wrongly assumed that it was this particular group of voters who decided the election. Coming from the front, looking for job opportunities and new housing that was devastated by bombings would logically assert that by the end of the war they would be interested in politic affairs and the Conservatives should therefore try to win their support. However, the opposite was true. In 1944, three-quarters of soldiers would have failed in registering for voting and as many as 40 per cent of service personnel abstained in the general election what reflects serious disenchantment. [18] It is evident that not only Conservatives but also other political parties failed to attract them by assumingly having nothing to offer. In relation, many of them distrusted the world of politics and politicians to such an extent they felt voting would make no difference to their lives. [19]

Whether the blame of the loss is put either on the voters or the party, it becomes unimportant in the context of social reforms in post-war Britain. However, the fact still remains that the Conservative loss was a result of a very complex mixture of factors that affected the voters. In summary, it was the economic crisis and a fail in subverting poverty and unemployment of the 1930’s that gave way to the idea of “never again” as well as to a desire for “a better Britain”. Furthermore, it was also the appeasement and the shame of “submission” to foreign aggressors later on leading to a massive war. Although the Conservative party and mainly Churchill succeeded in creating the war-time Coalition and winning the war, they failed in sustaining it during a peace-time and thus lost the peace. Aside that, it was the image of the Party as being old-fashioned, stiff and privileged-indirectly promoting social stratification, greatly relying on the iconic image of Churchill as the war-time hero that could be felt in their proposed unconstructive and unpractical reforms and the election campaign lacking strong manifesto. Their attitude towards the Beveridge Report was very hesitant and looked rather unwilling in comparison to the Labour enthusiasm, what was not compatible with radical thinking of British society. Consequently, the Conservatives had replaced the focus from social reforms to the pursuit of national security and warning against the future threat of communism that must be fought at its beginnings, practically meaning continuation of the war. An undeniable factor was Churchill’s blunders during his speeches attacking Labour that were well settled in public opinions for positive domestic leadership throughout the war. All the mentioned factors caused a swing in votes resulting in normally Conservative or Liberal seats voting for Labour. Moreover, some members of the electorate were so disappointed with the politics they chose not to vote at all or they chose to vote for lesser evil – Labour causing an “unfocused left vote” – voting for them but not identifying with their policies.

This surprising victory gave way to Labour social and economic reforms which however in the minds of British did not bring the expected revolution resulting in Conservatives winning back the majority in the Parliament in the next general election.