5 July 1945
The 1945 election marked a watershed in British history. The successful Conservative wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, was defeated by Clement Attlee's Labour Party.
Attlee's landslide victory ushered in the welfare state and the National Health Service. The commanding heights of the British economy were nationalised. India was granted independence.
Attlee's government changed the face of British society, creating a new social consensus that was to remain largely unchanged until 1979.
UK Vote Share (%)
GB Vote Share (%)
The national government set up by
Winston Churchill in 1940 to see Britain through the Second World
War came to an end on 23 May 1945. With the Allied victory in
Europe only two weeks old, the Labour Party was anxious to return
to politics as usual and fight a general election. Churchill was
unwilling to dissolve Parliament before the close of the war in
the Pacific, but he had little choice when his coalition partners
made clear their intentions to go to the country as soon as possible.
Barbara Castle at her selection as a Labour candidate in 1945
The 1945 election was the first to be fought in Britain for ten years. The previous decade had seen massive change and during the war a new left-leaning consensus had gradually developed within Britain, with the Beveridge report at its heart. The report, published in December 1942, recommended
a comprehensive welfare state and National Health Service. Its proposals enjoyed widespread support throughout the country but received only lukewarm support from Churchill and the Conservative Party. The nation had undergone the horrors of war and expected to enjoy the fruits of victory.
The position of the Labour Party changed
dramatically during the war. Churchill had given Labour several
key ministries within the national government, including the Ministry
of Labour (Ernest Bevin) and the Home Office (Herbert Morrison). Clement Attlee,
the Labour leader, was made Churchill's Deputy Prime Minister.
The effect was to give Labour a wealth of experience in office
which was to prove invaluable when the party went to the country.
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Most observers, including the Soviet
leader Stalin, believed the Tories would win, despite the publication
of opinion polls that showed Labour six points ahead of the Conservatives.
Churchill had been an incredibly popular and successful war leader
and few could imagine that the electorate would turn against him.
Although the Conservatives appeared to be in a very strong position
as they entered the election campaign, to many voters they remained
the party of appeasement, unemployment and the means test.
Conservative election poster 1945
The Conservatives' appeal to the nation
under the slogan "Vote National - Help him finish the job"
was based around Churchill's personal popularity and as such found
itself out of step with the public's new mood. Churchill and Tory media mogul Lord Beaverbrook based much of their campaign rhetoric on the dangers
posed to democratic institutions by Labour's proposals for a welfare
state and the nationalisation of key industries. Churchill even
went as far as to stay that if Labour were elected it would need
to "fall back on some kind of Gestapo" to implement
its policies. Ironically the Conservative manifesto A Declaration
of Policy to the Electors offered many policies similar to
those of Labour.
Churchill's attack on the Labour party...
Attlee leaped on Churchill's "Gestapo"
remark and took the opportunity to remind voters that Churchill
the wartime leader had been replaced by Churchill the leader of
the Conservative Party, remarking, "I thank him for having
disillusioned them so thoroughly."
Attlee dismissed Churchill's attack...
The Labour manifesto, Let us Face
the Future Together, offered the nation a radical departure
from the past, including comprehensive social security, a national
health service and the nationalisation of major industries.
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When Labour's victory was announced
on 26 July 1945 (three weeks after polling day to enable those
overseas in the forces to vote) it took the country, Attlee included,
by surprise. With 48 per cent of the vote, Labour gained a Parliamentary
majority of 146 seats, the largest in post-war British history.
The swing of 12 points to Labour was unprecedented (and remains
a record swing at post-war elections). The vote represented more
a rejection of the Conservative Party than of Winston Churchill's
performance as a war-leader. (Churchill was another astounded
at the result).
The forces vote required extensive organisation...
Many first-time voters voted Labour
as did those in the forces. Labour's success was down to its ability
to persuade the voters that only it was capable of building the
post-war world that the majority of the population desired. Churchill's
refusal to embrace the Beveridge Report whole-heartedly cost him
dearly as did the public's perception that he was a "man
of war" and not a suitable peacetime leader.
Conservative numbers in the House
of Commons dropped from 387 to 197. The Liberal Party too fared
badly. The Liberal leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, lost his seat
and the Liberal Party was reduced to just 12 seats. Several Government
ministers lost their seats, including Leo Amery and the future
Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Hugh Gaitskell,
Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey,
George Thomas and Michael Foot were all among the mass of new
Labour faces entering Parliament for the first time.
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