History

Labour’s short-lived post-war victory

Bryony ROSE (2013), Durham University, Bachelor’s Degree in History.

Labour didn’t establish a long-term socialist dominance from their large post-war election victory, ultimately because, the people did not vote for socialism in 1945. The people voted for reconstruction, the hope for a stable future and they cast their votes away from the bleak memories of hardship and the broken promises of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which were associated with the right. Labour clearly appeared believable to the mass electorate in their guarantees of post war reconstruction and social welfare, their landslide number of constituency wins would support this. However, Labour’s six short years in office suggests that the Attlee government must have fallen short in its goals. Labour did not sufficiently deliver its promises to the people in 1945 and attempted an unsustainable and progressively unjustifiable form of economic management and social control, which by 1951 had left them with nowhere to go. In addition with the 1948 redistribution Labour’s electoral hold proved not to be strong enough; small changes at individual seat level, tipped the balance back to the Conservatives, in terms of successful candidates. Also, the Conservatives were able to expose Labour’s failings in their propaganda throughout Labour’s tenure and even more explicitly in their 1951 electoral campaign. Although the precise impact of this is impossible to quantify, the Conservatives new and cohesive 1951 anti-socialist agenda, combined with their efforts to gain the weight of Liberal voters, disaffected women and other disillusioned sections of the population, did indeed prove successful enough to thwart any notion of a long-term democratic socialism in Britain. Although the ‘people’ chose Labour in 1945, their vote did not necessarily mean they understood or that they indeed cared about Labour’s long term socialist aims. They voted for the party that seemed most viable at the time to alleviate their everyday struggles and improve their living standards. By 1951 Labour no longer appeared, sufficiently enough, like the party to achieve this.

To understand both Labour’s victory in 1945 and the Conservative victory of 1951 the notion of a political ‘consensus’ deserves some attention. Addison has suggested that ‘the national unity of the war years gave rise to a new consensus at the top which dominated Britain long after the last bomb had fallen.’[1]  In terms of problems faced, there was indeed a consensus. Both parties were faced with the same Britain to rebuild. However there were undeniable differences in Labour and Conservative approaches to post-war reconstruction and even in those areas where they agreed, their ideological justifications were inherently different. In the words of Kandiah a consensus would suggest that ‘compromise triumphed over conflict and this simply was not the case.’[2] From a long-term perspective the notion of consensus is even more difficult to justify adequately. Despite obvious constraints on the Labour government in the immediate post war world, their retention of controls, economic planning and nationalisation policies were part of a belief that there was no going back; the war had set the British population and economy on the right track for the future. Taylor goes further to suggest that the war was a catalyst for Labour to increase state control; ‘cooperation must dominate the post-war world.’[3] This was not the Conservative line of thought. ‘Labour embarked on policies which owed little or nothing to the notion of a cross-party consensus.’[4] This lack of a ‘consensus’ is important when assessing the way the people voted in 1945 and 1951 because in both cases, albeit more starkly in 1951, they were presented with two very different parties to vote for.

Furthermore, Beers argues that the majority understood what they were voting for or against.[5] In terms of party policy this is incorrect, they understood their own perceptions of what they were voting for or against; reconstruction with Labour versus a repeat of the past with the Conservatives. Labours socialist intent was not considered at large by the mass public. The electoral turnout alone does provide support for the view that people felt this was an important election and that who secured power would no doubt affect their everyday lives, but to use the word ‘understood’ infers a greater level of interest and political engagement with, an on the whole, apathetic and cynical British public. The idea that the Labour government was set to fail because the opportunity to instigate radical change appeared greater than it actually was in 1945 deserves some consideration.[6] In a Gallup poll of 1943, 57% wanted to see great changes in their way of life after the war whereas but 3% mentioned socialism or a changed economic system. Mason and Thompson use Coventry as a case to prove that a return to normalcy was the most pressing concern for the electorate. Although there was a mass turn out for Churchill during his speech and much fewer for Attlee, Labour still won a landslide in seats, although the voting results were much closer. They suggest this does provide evidence of a ‘swing away from the established institutions of a bitter past and a swing to the left’, but they propose that it is the limitations of that shift that are perhaps more important than the extent of it.[7]

The date of the 1945 election ought to have swung in favour of the Conservatives who wanted an election sooner rather than later to capture on Churchill’s support. Labour would have been better suited with October giving them time to effectively transgress their policy ideas.  However, in March 1945 55% were willing to vote for an anti-Conservative popular front and the election was fought in a ‘mood of never again.’[8] Labour’s landslide victory can be attributed to a mixture of different factors. Their commitment to the Beveridge report was very well communicated with the public and ensured more middle class voters. Labour’s membership rose from 265,000 in 1944 to 400,000 by 1945. The impact of ‘Your Home’, ‘Your Britain’ and ‘Your Future’ was unrivalled by the opposition in the domestic policy sphere and there is some truth that the more ‘highly disciplined condition of the people’ would have been an advantage to Labour over the Conservatives.[9] Although the importance of each individual factor ought not to be exaggerated, together they no doubt helped to secure the marginal changes in voting patterns that gave Labour the edge in many constituencies. This coupled with the Conservatives lack of an official party policy detailing their commitment to post-war reconstruction and social welfare, set the tone for a Labour victory. Fielding goes too far in suggesting that ‘Labours victory was more than anything else a consequence of the peculiar nature of the British electoral system.’[10] This underrates party attempts to capture the electorate and underrates the populations will to choose the party of reconstruction. Although Churchill’s blunders and the lack of cohesion in the Conservative 1945 election campaign no doubt had some impact on the electorate, it would be unfair to rationalise Labour’s win purely on the basis of Conservative failings. Labour may have been unconfident but they undoubtedly successfully presented themselves as the party of reconstruction and reform.

Labour was committed to economic power through public ownership, the pursuit of equality, most notably of opportunity and the maintenance of full employment and productivity through physical planning; they believed they could achieve these socialist ideals in a compatible framework with democracy. Labour demonstrated a worrying lack of planning in finance with the £3.75 billion loan from America in November 1945; the conditions attached to the loan were to prove difficult for Labour to manage. However Labour’s mismanagement of the food crisis and continued rationing and austerity in peace time proved difficult for the people to accept and became progressively difficult for the Labour government to justify, outside of a long-term aim towards a socialist democracy. They failed to successfully meet the short term needs of the people. As Zweiniger-Bargielowska concludes, ‘Labour never fully addressed the implications of using wartime emergency legislation to control consumption in peace time.’[11] In 1948 Labour acknowledged the restrictions upon them and called for a halt to the ‘socialist advance.’ They labelled this a process of ‘consolidation’ with the aim of stabilising the current situation and making a productive effort directed towards the export orientated industries. Labour had somewhat neglected foreign policy as it was too difficult to construct a coherent socialist policy in this area. However, by 1948 ‘consolidation’ was arguably too little too late.

The Conservatives quickly reasserted themselves against Labour following their 1945 defeat. It was ideologically easy for them to oppose Labour, and those policies they agreed with in part, they could amend and justify along more Tory lines. Labour failings provided grounds for much of the negative Conservative rhetoric. What is therefore important to understand is the ‘changed impact of the Conservative philosophy in the failure of the Attlee revolution.’[12] The Conservatives understood the need to appear united, with a cohesive philosophy to put to the British people. Harriet Jones is correct in asserting that it would require a combination of reform and appeasement to appeal to both ‘the earners and the owners.’[13] As the Labour government found it harder to justify the levels of social control, rationing and economic planning, ideas of free enterprise were no longer as unappealing to the people, and no longer viewed as a major cause of unemployment. The Conservatives sought a strong revival from the centre and committed to slogans such as ‘the welfare state is in our hands’ and ‘we will set the people free.’ They presented themselves as pro worker and pro union; in the face of Labour’s ever strained relationship with the trade unions, due to complications with their nationalisation policies. The Conservatives actively tried to forge broad coalitions of interest to support their party. ‘True Balance’ published with the aim of converting disillusioned women, struggling under Labour’s contradictory austerity, was unrivalled by Labour in the 1951 electoral campaign. They promoted the notions that ‘socialism thrives on scarcity because it believes in concentrated power…delegated power is the Conservative aim and Conservatism flourishes in conditions of abundance.’[14] Yet despite Labour’s hardships their number of votes also increased in 1951.

The Liberal position in 1951 is a crucial element to the Conservative victory. The Conservatives actively fought for the Liberal vote declaring that ‘a vote for a Liberal today is a vote wasted,’ they also gave great publicity to converted Liberals. In 1950 there were 405 constituencies with three candidates running, indicating a definite Liberal presence. By the 1951 general election only 122 constituencies had 3 representatives and 495, as opposed to 113 in the previous year, had two candidates. This suggests that many Liberal candidates had been absorbed by Labour or the Conservatives who made a concerted effort to achieve this. The situation is much the same in 1955, and it appears to be majorly a two party contest. By way of competing candidates the balance begins to shift to a more equal one again from 1959 onwards. In the election results the Liberals commanded 9 and 9.1% of the votes in 1945 and 1950 respectively, this plummeted to just 0.73% in 1951. This would go some way to explaining why the Conservatives won by number of successful MP’s and not by overall votes. Labour despite definite failings still won a higher percentage of the votes in 1951 than in 1945, but they won more votes in their safe seats. The Conservatives with the help of converted Liberals won in more marginal constituencies, following the 1948 redistribution, and gained the edge to the tune of but 16 MP’s.

The 1945 and 1951 elections were fought with similar themes at their hearts. ‘Financial, ideological and constitutional factors in democratic renewal had low priorities for the voters in 1945’[15] Reconstruction and social security were key. Labour may have won every by election from 1945-51 but the minor changes made each time would serve as but one factor that would ultimately favour the Conservatives. Those who swung back to the right in 1945, had either become disillusioned with Labour and their progress in the last six years, or could have been directly affected by the concerted effort made by the Conservatives to regain their support. McKibbin effectively expresses that the ‘ideological cul-de-sac in which Labour found itself helps to explain the passivity which it fought and lost the 1951 general election.’ The Conservatives on the other were concerned with the attaining and holding of office in 1951, labour mistakenly took the opposite view and the Conservatives were to dominate the next decade of British politics.[16] The people chose property owning democracy, over socialist democracy in the long run.

References:

Addison, P. The Road to 1945 (London, 1982)

Beers, L. ‘Labour’s Britain. Fight for it now’, Historical Journal 52 (2009)

Fielding, S. ‘What did “the people” want? The meaning of the 1945 general election’, Historical Journal 35 (1992)

Fielding, S. ‘Don’t know and don’t care’: Popular Political Attitudes in Labours Britain; 1945-51’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years (London, 1991)

Francis, M. ‘Not Reformed Capitalism, But…Democratic Socialism: The Ideology of the Labour Leadership 1945-51’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996)

Francis, M. ‘Economics and ethics: The nature of Labour’s socialism 1945-51’, Twentieth Century British History 6 (1995)

Harris, J. ‘Political Ideas and the Debate on State Welfare 1940-45’ in H. L. Smith (ed), ‘War and Social Change, British Society in the Second World War (Manchester, 1986)

Hennessy, P. ‘The Attlee Governments 1945-51’ in P. Hennessy and A. Seldon (eds), Ruling Performance (Oxford, 1987)

Jeffreys, K. Politics and the People (London, 2007)

Jones, H. ‘A Bloodless Counter-revolution: The Conservative Party and the Defence of Inequality 1945-51’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996)

Kandiah, M. ‘Conservative Leaders Strategy and ‘Consensus’ 1945 – 1964’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996)

Macleod, R. ‘The Promise of Full Employment’ in H. L. Smith (ed), ‘War and Social Change. British Society in the Second World War (Manchester, 1986)

Mason, T. and Thompson, P. ‘Reflections on a Revolution’ The Political Mood in Wartime Britain’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years (London, 1991)

McKibbin, R. Parties and People, England 1914-1951 (Oxford, 2010)

Morgan, K.O. The People’s Peace (Oxford, 1992)

Pelling, H. ‘The Impact of the War on the Labour Party’ in H. L. Smith (ed), ‘War and Social Change, British Society in the Second World War (Manchester, 1986)

Taylor, I. ‘Labour and the Impact of War 1939-45’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years (London, 1991)

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I. ‘Consensus and Consumption: Rationing, Austerity and Controls after the War’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996)

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I. Austerity in Britain (Oxford, 2000)

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I. ‘Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945’ Historical Journal 37 (1994)

[1] P. Addison, The Road to 1945 (London, 1982), p. 13

[2] M. Kandiah, ‘Conservative Leaders Strategy and ‘Consensus’ 1945 – 1964’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996), p. 58

[3] I. Taylor, ‘Labour and the Impact of War 1939-45’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years (London, 1991), p. 21

[4] M. Francis, ‘Economics and ethics: The nature of Labour’s socialism 1945-51’, Twentieth Century British History 6 (1995), p. 242

[5] L. Beers, ‘Labour’s Britain. Fight for it now’, Historical Journal 52 (2009), p. 692

[6] Taylor, ‘Labour and the Impact of War’, p. 26

[7] T. Mason, and P. Thompson, ‘Reflections on a Revolution’ The Political Mood in Wartime Britain’ in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years (London, 1991), pp. 66-67

[8] K.O. Morgan, The People’s Peace (Oxford, 1992), p. 28

[9] P. Hennessy, ‘The Attlee Governments 1945-51’ in P. Hennessy and A. Seldon (eds), Ruling Performance (Oxford, 1987), p. 32

[10] S. Fielding, ‘What did “the people” want? The meaning of the 1945 general election’, Historical Journal 35 (1992), p. 639

[11] I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Austerity in Britain (Oxford, 2000), p. 4

[12] H. Jones, ‘A Bloodless Counter-revolution: The Conservative Party and the Defence of Inequality 1945-51’ in H. Jones and M. Kandiah (eds), The Myth of Consensus (London, 1996), p. 13

[13] Ibid, p. 4

[14] I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska, ‘Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945’ Historical Journal 37 (1994), pp. 186-187

[15] K. Jeffreys, Politics and the People (London, 2007), p. 122

[16] McKibbin, Parties and People, pp. 175-176

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