Churchill’s Crushing Election Defeat
5th July 1945
The Second World War shook up society to its core. Scholars have spent their entire lives attempting to uncover its political, cultural and social ramifications. The United Kingdom’s 1945 General Election pitted the Conservative Winston Churchill, the nation’s war hero, against the Labour candidate, Clement Attlee, the Deputy Prime Minister in the war cabinet. Many expected that the Conservatives, riding the wave of military victory, would win. The election was only two months after Victory in Europe day, a moment of great triumph for the country with Churchill, a national hero, as the country’s leader. His approval ratings were soaring at 83% a month after the war in Europe ended.
Yet, to a great deal of surprise, the result was the largest ever swing of seats, 12%, from the Conservative party to the Labour party - and is still the largest ever to this day. The Labour party amassed 393 seats, an increase of 239 and a popular vote of just under 12,000,000. This is in contrast to the Conservative’s loss of 190 seats, winning just 197 and 8,700,000 votes. The result of this election was a turning point for the political and social direction of the country. From an outsider’s view, the result might have been shocking - a victorious leader who brought a country through one of the largest wars in history being voted out of power. However, looking at the campaigns themselves and the desires of the people, the result becomes rather less surprising.
The Labour party centred their campaign around promises of post-war reforms. A large amount of emphasis was placed upon the creation of housing, the promise of full employment, a tax-funded NHS and a focus on Keynesian economic policies. These policies involved greater governmental regulation in business and in the lives of its citizens. The majority of the Labour support was from returning servicemen who, rightly, feared the unemployment and homelessness seen after the First World War.
This starkly contrasts to the focus of the Conservative campaign. The character of Churchill was integral to their campaign, playing off his image of a nation’s hero. Having overcome the evil opposition, the Conservative party expected the public to vote in favour of keeping them in power. They campaigned with emphasis upon social and international security, and held up nationalistic values in attempts to gain the public votes. However, these were not the issues the majority of the nation held dear. The Conservatives failed to determine that the people of Britain wanted peace and, unlike that seen after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, they wanted a lasting one.
Not only was the Conservative campaign deeply flawed, the public were distrustful of the current government for numerous reasons. Many disliked decisions taken by the inter-war government. They blamed its policies of appeasement and its failure in the rearmament of the country as fundamental reasons for the outbreak of war and the severe casualties sustained. Furthermore, blame was laid upon them for the economic inflation along with the rising unemployment seen throughout the period of the 1930s. The Labour party played upon the difference of Churchill as a wartime leader and as a domestic politician. This was seen by many in an interview Churchill gave in which he argued that the Labour party would have to resort to some sort of Gestapo operation in order to run socialism in Britain. The Conservative party were out of touch with the people, whereas Attlee and his party spoke for them. The fact that they were designated domestic roles in the war cabinet certainly aided them; they could show to the people their ambitions and competence.
The impact of the Attlee government is still felt today. The National Health Service is seen as an enshrining feature of the character of the country. The expansion of the 1944 Education Act, the 1946 National Insurance Act providing sickness and unemployment benefits, the National Assistance Act of 1948, the increased focus on house building all corroborate the fact that the country changed its political standing. In addition, the adoption of Keynesianism allowed for planning to an extent unheard of in the country previously. Although there is current debate over the extent to which there was a bipartisan consensus, reflected in the economic and social policies of the successive governments after Attlee’s administration, his five year term not only paved the way for British politics for the future 30-40 years, it defined it.
The people had spoken, they made their choice and it was very clear in which direction they desired the country to move. Men fought in the preceding war for the right to vote for such things. This event has many contemporary connections; the democratic decisions of the public; politicians accused of being out of touch with the people; the anniversary of start of the battle of the Somme, paying respect to those who fought for our democratic rights; our connections with Europe and the decision by Herbert Morrison to refuse to join the coal and steel community, the start of the EEC, and thus later the EU, the list could continue. Deep associations can be made between this, country defining event, and countless other decisions, and events. This highlights the importance of this election event.