Labour's 1945 Election Victory


Cause - The Interwar Years

The result of the 1945 election may have partially stemmed from the interwar years:

  • The electoral fortunes of the Labour Party were improving before the war. By the late 1930s, Labour showed notable signs of having recovered from the disaster of 1931, and Labour's performance in 1935 had been a great improvement from that of 1931. Some suggest that had an election been held in 1940, then Labour may have posed a more serious challenge to the Conservatives.
  • Voters in 1945 may have voted for Labour because of their memories of the interwar years, which were ones of Conservative domination. The interwar period was associated with high unemployment, poverty, and the policy of appeasement.'Never Again' was an effective anti-Conservative slogan in 1945. As a result, it was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election, but 'the ghost of Neville Chamberlain' (Macmillan).
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Cause - Experience in the war cabinet

At the start of the war, Labour's political figures were inexperienced and relatively unknown. The war was therefore a great help to the Labour Party, as it allowed their members to enter the war coalition and the war cabinet without winning an election.

This allowed Labour politicians to gain valuable ministerial experience, make themselves known to the public, and emerge at the end of the war with enhanced reputations.

Key figures:

  • Clement Attlee - Deputy Prime Minister from 1942 to 1945, and did much to ensure the efficiency of the coalition.
  • Ernest Bevin - Minister of Labour and National Service from 1940 to 1945.
  • Herbert Morrison - popular and effective Home Secretary from 1940 to 1945.

Labour dominated home affairs and reconstruction planning for the future. No longer could the Labour Party be viewed as revolutionary and inexperienced, as most Labour leaders were pragmatic, rather than idealistic, socialists. Left wingers such as Bevan were outnumbered, and Attlee presented himself as a common sense politician who could be trusted.

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Cause - Greater sense of social equality

  • During the war, people had experienced a greater equality of opportunity, and the priviledged and wealthy had become subordianate to the community as a whole. Many wanted society to become more equal, and Labour was viewed as the party more likely to achieve this, as they stood for central economic planning and greater social equality.
  • The Beveridge Report - Churchill was critical of the proposals of the Beveridge Report, as he feared that at the end of the war, Britain would be unable to afford expensive reforms. In Parliament he accepted the report in principle, but could accept no 'binding commitment to it'. Labour, on the other hand, demonstrated their interest in the report far more clearly than their Conservative colleagues; all bar two Labour backbenchers voted for a motion in favour of immediate implementation of the report in full, whereas not a single Conservative supported this motion.

Social reform and the creation of a better post-war world were definitely high on the agendas of voters in 1945.

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Cause - Impact of the war

  • In the past, Labour's socialism was unfairly associated with the socialism of the USSR. However, the fact that the Soviet Union was Britain's ally in the war meant that this association became a positive one. Stalin was now no longer portrayed as a vicious dictator, but a friend who had done much to help defeat Nazi Germany. This association with the USSR, although still unfair, now worked in Labour's favour.
  • Those who served in the armed forces tended to vote for Labour, as it was felt that their sacrifices would be more worthwhile if a better Britain were to emerge from the war. Marshall Tedder, the RAF Chief, remarked that 80% of servicemen would vote for Labour, with the remaining 20% not voting at all.

Therefore, the war itself helped to increase Labour's standing and reputation, making their victory in the election more likely.

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Cause - Anti-Conservative developments

  • The Conservatives were on the defensive ideologically during the war - the 'war socialism' necessitated by the conflict did not fit in with their belief in individualism and free enterprise.
  • Few Conservatives made a name for themselves during the war, as most Conservatives had been more involved with foreign policy and were therefore out of the public eye. Only R. A. Butler, whose Education Act was passed in 1944, achieved any prominence on the home front.
  • The Conservative political machine tended to decay during the war. Whereas the Conservatives suspended their annual conference, Labour's was maintained. Moreover, a higher proportion of Conservative political agents were called up to fight abroad, whereas Labour's were more likely to be in reserved occupations.

Therefore, Labour's victory was, in part, due to Conservative weaknesses.

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The Conservative Election Campaign

The Conservatives complacently built their campaign around Churchill, the 'man who won the war'.

However, many voters doubted whether he was an ideal peacetime Prime Minister:

  • He was viewed as too old and distrusted - some had not forgiven him for his anti-union, anti-Labour campaigns before the war.
  • Seemed above party politics - he was one of the most prominent critics of the Tories in the 1930s.
  • Minority of voters thought that they could have Churchill as PM with Labour dominating the government (in a situation similar to Lloyd George in 1918).
  • Churchill misjudged the mood of the electorate - 'Gestapo Speech'

The Conservatives' manifesto was vague and short on policy commitments. Their campaign was negative, concentrating on excessive attacks on Labour, rather than their policies. 

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Labour's Election Campaign

Labour, in contrast to the Conservatives, fought a positive campaign with a positive commitment to social reform. Their manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, focused on domestic issues and how the party was going to deal with them, making their campaign more inspiring. They had a clear policy agenda, and justified their policies in terms of efficiency rather than socialist theory, and so Labour were able to appeal to a greater proportion of the electorate.

Clement Attlee's response to Churchill's 'Gestapo Speech' was low-key but nonetheless effective, and as a result he was able to reinforce doubts in the minds of voters about Churchill's suitability, as well as emphasising what Labour aimed to achieve.

Newspaper coverage played a significant role in Labour's victory. The press was more evenly divided in 1945 than it had been in any other election, with the Daily Herald, the Daily Mirror, and The Times supporting the Labour Party.

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