1945 General Election

Prime Minister Clement Attlee (right) and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin photographed at 10 Downing Street at midnight on 14 August 1945.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee (right) and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin photographed at 10 Downing Street at midnight on 14 August 1945.

Perhaps the most studied of all election results, 1945 marked a break in British politics. In the aftermath major changes were introduced including the Welfare State and nationalisation of many parts of the economy. To read more about the Labour Government of 1945-51 read our article on Clement Attlee.

After leading a successful war an incumbent Prime Minister usually sees the boost in popularity that will lead their party an impressive victory. This however was not to be the case in 1945 and despite his popularity as a war leader, Winston Churchill did not lead the Conservative Party to victory. Even the Labour Party did not see its own massive victory coming.

The reasons are complicated, but Labour’s stunning landslide victory was largely due to a change in popular attitudes about the role of government in society. The changes that came after their victory indicate this: the birth of the National Health Service and the role of government in housing provision being the too longest lasting. But changes in the political landscape in the lead up to 1945 also show vast changes were incoming.

Small parties such as the Commonwealth Party, a middle class Christian-socialist group, won seats even in Conservative heartlands by opposing the decision of main parties not to stand against each other. Their message was one of jointly building a society for all, one which was to be reflected in the policy decisions of the next Labour government.

The election brought Labour to power with 193 seats, compared with only 213 for the Conservatives and 44 for the others. Their victory in terms of number of votes was less impressive, but still slightly more than 2 million over the Conservative vote and just short of half of the votes cast – meaning the party had less than half of the popular vote.

The reason for the difference between seats won and the popular vote is the First Past the Post System which Britain operates in its elections. Each of the constituencies elects one MP, and you need to only get the highest number of votes in that seat to become an MP. Hence Labour needed less votes to gain a seat in this election than the Conservatives, the difference being 30,522 votes giving Labour a seat and 46,893 giving the Conservatives a seat. The bias of this system changes with every election, but generally (but not always) it leads to the party with the larger share of the popular getting a disproportionate majority of seats. For smaller parties it’s even worse, the Liberals needed 187,352 votes for every seat they won!

The importance of this is the narrative of a landslide victory in this, or any other election, has to be put into the context of votes as well as seats. When considering only votes no party could be said to have had a true landslide in the twentieth century.

Labour nevertheless achieved an extrodinary victory in context of the previous election in 1935 – their vote had jumped from 37.9% of the total to 47.8%, bringing their seats up from 154 in 1935 to 393 in 1945.

Why did the Labour Party win?

Despite being a popular wartime leader, Winston Churchill’s party, the Conservatives, was generally associated with grim peacetime conditions due to being the party of power during the 1930s depression when millions were unemployed and many more saw their living standards reduced. The image hadn’t been shook off, and neither had the memory of the failure to prevent the Second World War through their efforts under Neville Chamberlin at appeasement.

Churchill and the Conservatives were also surprisingly bad at electioneering in this election. They only realised the possibility of a Labour win late on, and Churchill had even commented that the Labour platform for the election would require a force equivalent to the hated Nazi Gestapo to implement. They also underestimated the prestige Labour ministers had gained during the war including Clement Attlee and his future ministers such as Bevin.

While there was a negative view of the Conservatives record in office, there was also a general optimism about the future. After terrible suffering both on the battlefield and at home during the Second World War there was a feeling that things could only get better and that now was the time to shape the future. A similar feeling had happened during the First World War, but most felt betrayed by the government under David Lloyd George which hadn’t really delivered on its slogan of ‘a land fit for heroes’ then. Promises of incumbent wartime governments therefore weren’t trusted compared with the promises of the Labour opposition.

Labour had the advantage that it hadn’t really had much time in government, and when it had it could put its failures down to not having a majority in parliament. Thus it’s record was largely clean while the Conservatives had to answer for any policy that had implemented in previous governments.

While the Conservatives did try to spark optimism in their campaign and talk of reconstruction, it was generally held that the Labour party had a monopoly on this narrative. Thus the Conservatives efforts to paint themselves in what the Labour party had long positioned itself on might well have assisted the Labour Party further.

The role of army in the vote has caused a lot of controversy. With a far higher than usual number of men serving in the army, most of whom had seen active combat over several years, the normal influences of the media and workplace were less strong compared with influences from within the army itself. Part of these influences were from the structure of the army, but the historically controversial part was from the role of Army education. Troops in the war had received education from a section of the armed forces assigned to this role, partly with a propaganda aim of creating loyal soldiers by teaching them about what was going on in fascist Germany. Many of those who occupied these roles were left wing in political leaning, leading some historians to argue it was this influence which brought Labour to power after the war.

Others have suggested that the propaganda such as documentary films of the army had to be optimistic in outlook as a necessity to justify the fighting, and this optimism would naturally lead to a growth in support for the Labour Party even if that was not the intension of those making the propaganda.

Books about the 1945 Election

London Constituencies Results

Battersea North

The Battersea North election was a straight contest between Conservatives and Labour. As seen from the figures below, Labour won in a landslide and took the best part of three-quarters of the votes.

Persons Entitled to Vote: 26,842
Valid Votes Cast: 19,039 70.93% turnout
Conservative Candidate: 4969 26.1%
Labour Candidate: 14,070 73.9%

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