UK General Elections 1940-1959
1945: Labour landslide buries Churchill
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Held 10 years after the last general election, 1945 marked a real watershed in British politics. The national government that Winston Churchill had set up to see Britain through World War Two came to an end on 23rd May 1945, just two weeks after VE day. Although Churchill did not want to go to the country until the war in the Pacific was over, he was left with little choice when the Labour Party withdrew from the wartime coalition and made their intention to seek a general election clear. During the war, a left-leaning consensus had slowly begun to develop with the 1942 Beveridge Report at its heart; left wing candidates had done relatively well at by-elections during the 1935-1945 parliament. The report received widespread national support but little interest from Churchill and the Conservative Party; the British people had seen the horrors of war and wanted to enjoy the fruits of victory. Many remembered the failure of the Liberal Party in 1918 to deliver a ‘land fit for heroes’ and were keen not to make the same mistake again. The Labour Party campaigned on the promise of full employment, a national health service, comprehensive social security and the nationalisation of major industries. Labour had also been able to gain vital experience during its time in the wartime national government, with Churchill giving the party some key ministries. Attlee was able to use this to his advantage during the campaign. The Conservatives based their campaign on Churchill’s personal popularity with slogans such as ‘Vote National- help him finish the job’. Churchill proved, however, to be out of touch with the mood of the nation. In speeches, he often used rhetoric which suggested that Labour’s policies posed a danger to democratic institutions. In one instance, he commented that his former coalition partners would have to ‘fall back on some kind of Gestapo’ in order to implement their policies. Churchill had been warned against using the line and Attlee quickly attacked back. Churchill’s style as a wartime leader was less effective during peacetime and many voters linked the Conservative Party to appeasement. During the campaign, Churchill invited Attlee to the Potsdam Conference thus providing continuity in the event of a change of government during the conference. The chairman of Labour’s National Executive, Harold Laski, released a statement declaring that Attlee’s presence at Potsdam would not bind a future Labour government to any decisions made there. The Conservatives used this to paint Labour’s National Executive as a sinister body running the party. At the beginning of the war, the Conservatives had been ahead in the opinion polls but when opinion polling was resumed in 1943, Labour were ahead by around 10 percentage points and by 1945, Labour were clocking leads of up to 18 percentage points. As polling was in its infancy, the majority of pundits believed that Churchill was unbeatable and that the Conservatives would be returned to office with an 80-seat majority. Polling day was on 5th July but the results were not declared until 26th July, in order to allow time for the votes of servicemen that were still overseas to be collected. As the results came in, it became clear that Attlee was to be Prime Minister and that Labour had won a landslide overall majority of 146; the first parliamentary majority in the party’s history. Labour’s share of the vote surged to 47.7 percent and the 12 percent swing from the Conservatives remains the largest ever achieved at a British general election. The Conservative and Unionist allies secured 210 seats to Labour’s 393 and their share of the vote sunk to 39.7 percent. Pundits and world leaders (including Churchill) were left shocked by the result but with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible that Labour’s victory came as part of a long-term trend that started in 1942 with the publication of the Beveridge Report. The Liberals saw their share of the vote rise slightly but lost 9 of their 21 seats. With an enviable overall majority, Attlee would press ahead with the Labour Party's radical programme for government.
1950: Attlee hangs on
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After five years in government, Clement Attlee’s Labour party entered the 1950 general election campaign aiming for a second term in office. Since taking power in 1945, Labour had transformed the face of Britain, establishing the National Health Service as part of a cradle to grave welfare state. Key industries, such as coal, gas, electricity and the railways, had been nationalised. New towns had been built, house building soared and education was reformed. Despite this, wartime rationing continued and in 1949, the pound had to be devalued. The Conservatives attacked Labour on its economic record and opposed continued nationalisation but their manifesto did not promise to reverse any of Labour’s major welfare reforms. Labour promised to continue with its 1945 programme, nationalising further industries such as steel, sugar and cement. Churchill called for a summit with the Soviet Union and United States; Attlee hit back, commenting that his idea was a ‘stunt’. As campaigning got underway, Attlee went on a 1,000-mile tour of the country by car. The Conservatives ran a highly organised campaign, considerably more professional than in 1945, Rab Butler and Lord Woolton had spent time behind the scenes reforming the party. In 1949, the Conservatives were polling up to 11 points ahead of Labour but by 1950, Labour had closed the gap and the two parties were virtually tied. The Conservative and Unionist Allies recovered significant ground compared to 1945, with their share of the vote increasing to 46.1 percent and their number of seats rising from 210 to 298. Labour polled 46.1 percent of the vote, down 1.6 percentage points on 1945 but in terms of actual votes, they were well up on their 1945 performance. There was an average swing of 3.3 percent towards the Conservatives and this lost Labour 78 seats, very nearly costing Attlee his overall majority. The Representation of the People Acts of 1948 and 1949 abolished plural voting, removed multi-member constituencies and had significantly redrawn the constituency boundaries. These changes were widely expected to remove some of Labour’s advantage in the electoral system and Attlee did not have to enact them. He chose to, however, as he believed that he should take the moral high ground. The Liberals fielded more candidates than in 1945 and once again, although their share of the vote increased very slightly, they lost three seats. Labour had scraped over the finishing line, with an overall majority reduced from 146 to five; Churchill commented ‘Parliament will be in a very unstable condition.’ The Conservative and Unionist Allies narrowly won the most seats in England despite Labour winning a higher share of the vote. After chairing a meeting of the cabinet immediately after the results of the election came through, journalists asked Attlee what the government had decided and he replied ‘carrying on, that’s all.’ Despite a relatively quiet campaign, the turnout in 1950 remains the highest in the post-war era at 83.9 percent.
1951: Churchill's Indian summer
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By 1951, the legendary Attlee government was beginning to show its age. The majority of Labour’s policies from 1945 had been implemented and the party was becoming increasingly directionless. Many of the government’s ministers were getting old; in April 1951 Ernest Bevin died. He was replaced as Foreign Secretary by Herbert Morrison, who appeared to struggle to cope when dealing with a crisis. The cost of the Korean War had a major strain on the British economy and Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was forced to threaten the introduction of charges on some National Health Service prescriptions. Two cabinet ministers, Harold Wilson and Aneurin Bevan, resigned from their posts in protest. To compound Attlee’s problems, there was a balance of payments crisis in 1951 and the government struggled to respond. The narrow parliamentary arithmetic was making governing difficult for Attlee and he decided to call an election for 25th October 1951, hoping to increase Labour’s tiny overall majority. Senior figures in the Labour Party had doubts about whether their party could recover its losses from 1950 and believed that Attlee’s best chance of defeating Churchill for a third time would be in 1952. Attlee chose to ignore their advice as he wanted to end the political uncertainty before King George VI’s planned six month tour of the commonwealth. Whilst Labour appeared tired and out of touch, the Conservatives looked fresh. This was, in part, because many new Conservative MPs had been elected in 1950. Lord Woolton had worked tirelessly since 1945 to improve the image of the party. He held membership drives to recruit young members, ran anti-Labour campaigns and sought links with businesses. With the election campaign held against the backdrop of the Korean War, Churchill sought to play-up his successes as a wartime Prime Minister. Labour accused the Conservatives of warmongering, an attack line that left Churchill furious. Wartime rationing had continued through to 1951 and bread rationing (which had not occurred during the war) was introduced in 1946. The Conservatives promised to reduce rationing and to ease the housing shortage by building 300,000 houses per year. In his usual style, Attlee travelled around the country by car accompanied by his wife and addressed rallies of Labour supporters. He chose to focus on Labour’s successes whilst in government, rather than on offering new policies. As campaigning got underway, the Conservatives were leading the opinion polls by around seven percentage points. Labour’s negative attacks on the Conservatives, particularly the claim that they could not be trusted with the post-war welfare reforms, had an effect with voters and by the time polling day came around, the Conservative lead had shrunk to just over two percent. The Conservative share of the vote increased by 5.6 percentage points to 48 percent. At the same time, Labour’s share rose, by 2.7 percentage points to 48.8 percent. This resulted in a swing of 1.13 percent from Labour to Conservative and delivered the Conservative and Unionist Allies a net gain of 22 seats. With 321 seats, Churchill was returned to power with an overall majority of 17. To date, this remains the only UK general election where one party has won the popular vote and another has won an overall majority. At 13,948,385, the Labour Party won the most votes ever won by a British political party and this record has only been superseded once, by John Major in 1992. Labour won many of its strongholds with big majorities but performed poorly in marginal seats, hence the impressive vote share but loss of seats. The Liberal Party were suffering the effects of two elections relatively close together and being short of funds, they only ran 109 candidates, compared with 475 in 1950. Their vote share fell from 9.1 to 2.6 percent. The election marked the beginning of 13 years of Conservative rule and the only general election victory for the Conservative and Unionist Allies under Winston Churchill (in terms of seats).
1955: Eden gains a mandate
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Anthony Eden replaced Winston Churchill as Prime Minister on 6th April 1955. He wasted no time in going to the country and called a general election for 26th May. Eden hoped to capitalise on the upbeat public mood created by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Whilst in office, the Conservatives had brought wartime rationing to an end and their ambitious housebuilding programme was running ahead of schedule. Eden was popular and his chancellor, Rab Butler, quickly revealed a budget that cut income tax. The Conservative manifesto made few specific promises but raised questions over the divisions within the Labour Party. Labour pledged to abolish the 11-plus exam and to abolish prescription charges introduced by the Conservatives. Labour also warned that a Conservative government would see a return to war, this proved less effective as fears of World War Three subsided with the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. In its 20th year of Clement Attlee’s leadership and in opposition, Labour’s divisions were continuing to deepen. Aneurin Bevan had to have the whip withdrawn in March 1955 after he led a rebellion of 57 Labour MPs; the whip was quickly reinstated due to Bevan’s popularity but he came close to being expelled from the party. Labour also found attacking Eden much more difficult compared to Churchill. The Liberal Party once again found themselves short of funds and were only able to stand in 110 constituencies. Consequently, they had limited impact of the campaign. Television made its presence felt with both Attlee and Eden making themselves available for interviews; Attlee still undertook his typical tour of the country. Opinion polls throughout the campaign had the Conservatives around four points ahead of Labour. There was a 1.6 percent swing from Labour to Conservative, the Conservative share of the vote rose to a post-war record of 49.6 percent and Anthony Eden successfully increased the Conservative and Unionist Allies’ number of seats from 321 to 345. This was the first time that the Conservatives had won the popular vote since 1935. Labour’s share of the vote declined by 2.4 percentage points and the party lost 18 seats, taking their total down to 277. In Scotland, the Conservative and Unionist Allies won 50.1 percent of the vote and 36 seats. The Liberal Party successfully held its six seats but only saw a modest increase in its share of the vote. All three major parties saw their actual number of votes decline as turnout was down by 5.8 percentage points compared to 1951. The Conservatives were returned with an increased overall majority of 60 and when Eden arrived at Conservative Central Office, he was given a round of applause by party workers. This would be the last of five elections fought by the Labour Party under the leadership of Clement Attlee, he stepped down from his position in December 1955. With voters choosing to back the status quo and only limited change throughout the country, the 1955 general election has been described as one of the ‘dullest’ in British history.
1959: "You've never had it so good"
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Following the Suez Crisis in 1956, Anthony Eden was forced to resign as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader. At the time of his resignation in January 1957, the Conservative Party had no formal system in place for electing a new leader. The Queen met with Winston Churchill and the Marquees of Salisbury, who asked each individual member of the cabinet for their opinions on who should succeed Eden. Contrary to the expectation that Rab Butler would be chosen, the majority of the cabinet opted for Eden’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan. Upon replacing Eden, Macmillan told the Queen that he could not guarantee that his government would ‘last six weeks.’ The government’s handling of the Suez Crisis had badly damaged their standing in the opinion polls with Labour consistently reaching leads of double figures. Hugh Gaitskell had taken over the leadership of the Labour Party after Clement Attlee retired following the party’s 1955 general election and had worked to close some of the divisions that had dogged the party whilst it had been in opposition. Despite this, the government reversed its fortunes rapidly and as 1959 approached, the economy enjoyed an upturn leading to a consumer boom. Many British people were able to buy goods such as televisions, cars, washing machines and fridges for the first time. In the new ‘age of affluence’ for working class people, Macmillan famously commented that ‘many of our people have never had it so good’. This, alongside a generous ‘give-away’ budget by Derek Heathcoat-Amory in 1959 created the perfect economic conditions for a general election and with the Conservatives moving ahead in the opinion polls, Macmillan called an election for 8th October 1959. The Conservatives painted themselves as the party of continued prosperity and played heavily on the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ message. They also used slogans such as ‘Life's better with the Conservatives - Don't let Labour ruin it.’ Labour focused on Gaitskell and portrayed him as a ‘man with a plan’ but Gaitskell’s credibility suffered a setback when he promised to raise pensions and build more hospitals without raising taxes. On the whole, however, Labour’s campaign was considered to be effective with the party making use of television. Macmillan was an asset to his party and was also able to use television coverage to his advantage. The Conservative share of the vote fractionally decreased by 0.2 percentage points but the 2.6 percentage point drop in the Labour vote meant that there was a swing of 1.2 percent from Labour to Conservative. The Conservative and Unionist Allies increased their number of seats from 345 to 365. An Independent-Unionist, David Robertson, was elected in Caithness and Sutherland. Labour suffered a disappointing defeat, being left with 258 seats, down 19 compared to 1955. With their traditional working class base changing, questions were raised as to whether Labour would be able to win another general election. Despite their success, the Conservative and Unionist Allies failed to win the most seats in Scotland, marking the beginning of Labour’s dominance that would last until 2015. The Liberal Party successfully held their six seats and saw their share of the vote rise by 3.2 percentage points. For the Conservative and Unionist Allies under Harold Macmillan, 1959 was a truly remarkable election. With their overall majority increased to 100 seats, they increased their number of seats at the fourth general election in a row. To date, this remains the only occasion in which a governing party has successfully increased its overall majority when seeking a third term in office.