Why did the Conservatives dominate 1951-1964?



The most important reason for Conservative dominance/ability to win 3 successive
elections was that their economic policies appealed to an increasingly affluent

They were able to manipulate the economy so that it entered the ‘go’ phase months before an election, thus creating a feel good factor amongst the affluent class of the 1950s

They embraced the philosophies of Keynes and Beveridge, moving towards the middle ground in politics and in all spheres were able to beat Labour at their own game

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Conservative economic strengths


  • Successive Chancellors were able to control the economic cycle through doses of reflation, and given the Prime Minister’s prerogative of choosing an election date, such stimulation was coordinated with the electoral cycle
  • 1955 Butler’s Spring Budget – lowers basic rate of income tax as part of a £134
  • million tax give away
  • 1959 Heathcoat-Amory – lowers income tax to a post-war low of 38.75%
  • Meant Eden could campaign on the slogan of ‘Conservative Freedom Works' (1955) and Macmillan could campaign on the slogan ‘Life is better with the Conservatives’ (1959)


  • The Conservatives were also associated with affluence and economic freedom - no reason to vote Labour
  • Rationing finally ends under Churchill
  • Unemployment rarely above 2%
  • Home ownership 44%, TV ownership 91%
  • When Macmillan told the electorate ‘You’ve never had it so good’, this really did seem to be the case
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Conservative strengths with industrial relations

Whilst economic policies were crucial to success, a further factor for Conservative
dominance was the fostering of harmonious industrial relations

This also helped the economy to grow and meant that the Conservatives were able to beat Labour at their own game.

Committed to nationalization and the mixed economy – only privatize iron and steel
and road haulage

Government are now the employer of millions in the nationalized industries and union
membership stands at 10 million

They usher in a conciliatory and harmonious relationship with the unions through the Minister for Labour, Walter Monkton

Industrial trouble was largely bought off with wage increases.

The Labour Party’s historic links with the unions were less important in an era of congenial working relations with the Tories, and the Conservatives had delivered to the working classes

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Labour economic weakness

Whilst Conservative economic policies and industrial relations were crucial in fostering affluence and a feel good factor amongst the electorate, Labour disarray over the economy encouraged the sense that it was the Conservatives who could be trusted with the economy

Labour had imploded in 1951 over spending on the welfare state and were associated with high taxation and Austerity of the Attlee years - cost them the 1951 election and haunted them throughout the 1950s

1950s Bevanites were pushing for further nationalization whilst a right wing group centered on Gaitskell and Crosland, who argued that nationalistaion and Clause 4 were irrelevant (Crossland's ‘Future of Socialism’ vision)

Thus the Conservatives were the party to be trusted with preserving affluence whilst Labour were perceived to be a party of tax and spend

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Conservative political strengths

The political unity and strength of the Conservatives helped them to win 3 successive

Their leaders and campaigns were able to highlight the economic competence
of the party

This contrasted with the divided and backward looking Labour Party

1955 - Eden was a popular and effective leader, harnesses the new medium of TV and
focuses on the economic mantra of ‘Conservative Freedom Works’

1959 Macmillan or ‘Supermac’ stressed the theme of continuing prosperity in ‘Life is
better under the Conservatives’ and a campaign which promised to double the
standard of living within a generation

HOWEVER the Conservatives were lucky in that the elections of 1955 and 1959 did not coincide with problems/mistakes

  • 1956 – Suez Crisis
  • 1961 – Didn’t get into EEC
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Labour political weakness

It is clear that Labour could not compete with the Conservatives economically, but
equally they were no match politically

1955 - an ageing and backward looking Attlee was unable to tame the increasingly
wayward Bevanites

In 1952, 57 Bevanites had defied the party whip and voted against rearmament; in 1955 62 defied party orders to vote in favour of the H bomb.

In 1959 Gaitskell made a major blunder over not increasing taxation which was perceived to be a crude attempt to buy off the electorate.

Thus, the key reason for Conservative dominance was their political skill at being able to highlight their own economic success in contrast to Labour disarray

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Conservative social strengths

Whilst economic factors were the most important reason why the Conservatives were
able to dominate, they also had successful social policies

Labour may have created the welfare state but expenditure increased under the
Conservatives, both in real terms and as a percentage of public expenditure – from
39% to 43%.

Poster boy for commitment to the welfare state was Macmillan - as Minister for
Housing the government surpassed the 300,000 new houses target and by 1964 1.7
million new homes had been built

Thus the Labour Party had nothing new to offer the electorate - they were beaten at
their own game by the Conservatives

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