The 1945 General Election

An election was called for 5 July 1945. Voting closed on 19 July to allow enough time for soldiers stationed abroad to vote. The two leading parties were Clement Attlee’s Labour Party and Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party. The Liberal Party were in decline at this stage.

The election result was a surprise to many. Winston Churchill was a successful wartime leader and a hero. Clearly, many observers would have fancied a Churchill victory due to his war role and his popularity. However, Labour secured a landslide victory.

A woman plasters a poster onto a well. Text: A non-stop drive to provide a good home for every family. Vote Labour.
Labour Party poster, 1945

Causes of the 1945 election victory

Perhaps the British people wished to see a period of change and believed Labour would bring a break from the 1930s Depression. The Conservatives had under-estimated this mood. Despite Churchill’s popularity, the Conservative party struggled to win new supporters.

The Conservatives ran a flawed campaign. By focusing on Churchill’s World War Two role, they did not appeal to voters who intended to move on from the war. As this was the first election since 1935, an unusually high number of people were voting for the first time. The slogan Help him finish the ‘job’ hardly eased voters’ fears.

There was a confidence that Labour would bring about great political and economic change. By promising to embrace and act upon the Beveridge Report they were able to win over voters.

Labour benefitted from the change in attitudes towards the class system and social mobility that had emerged due to the disruption to traditions during the war, alongside an increasing belief in access to opportunities for all.

The Conservative party was blamed by many for the recent Depression and the failure to stand up to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s appeasement. The Labour campaign focused on these issues and weaknesses.

Furthermore, Churchill mistakenly compared Labour’s planned socialism to tyrannical dictatorships, and even made reference to the Gestapo.

The Daily Express newspaper, a supporter of the Conservatives, used the headline ‘GESTAPO IN BRITAIN IF SOCIALISTS WIN’, and this horrified many voters.

Attlee understood the desire for change in Britain, as seen in the slogan Let us face the future together. The promises of a welfare state, based on the Beveridge Report, and immediate nationalisation of the Bank of England, coal, power, transport and iron and steel industries attracted voters to Labour.

Clement Attlee celebrates surrounded by a cheering crowd.
Clement Attlee and colleagues at Transport House in London after the announcement of Labour's victory, 26 July 1945