There were just 79 days between Germany’s surrender and Attlee’s arrival at 10 Downing Street. Labour shocked the world by ousting Churchill, and had a manifesto to radically alter British working life. For the first time in the party’s history, they had a majority to do it. Yet the 1945 election almost never happened. And when it did, nobody expected Labour to win, not even Clement Attlee himself.
The 1945 general election would be the high-water mark for British socialism, with Attlee overseeing the return of the first ever majority Labour government. On reflection, the political climate for a radical left-wing government seems insurmountable. A battered nation emerging from the aftermath of another war, having shared their scant wartime resources together with the promise of a ‘New Jerusalem’ at the end of it.
The war had created a public mood that was favourable to an interventionist, collectivist and more egalitarian society. The old world order which had given rise to a society with health inequalities and social division could no longer hold. Yet the 1945 election almost never happened. And when it did, Clement Attlee was expected to step down and let somebody else become Prime Minister.
Time To Serve
Throughout the war, Clement Attlee had been conscious of the deep public mistrust for his party. Labour had held office only twice before, in 1924 and in 1929, but it was the circumstances of war that allowed the party to acquire both the political experience and the public trust to govern alone. Labour had managed to put their key men in important wartime positions, with Herbert Morrison proving to be a masterful Home Secretary and Ernie Bevin excelling with the nation’s resources as Minister for Labour.
The appointment of Bevin proved to be one of Churchill’s most effective and important decisions, as he managed ‘the war economy’ in which all human and material resources were organised to maximise the war effort. Nevertheless critics of the war cabinet, such as Nye Bevan, attempted to undermine Attlee for working with Churchill, highlighting their failure to adopt a radical left-wing programme during the war.
Bevan’s constant attacks led to Churchill labelling him a “squalid nuisance”. Attlee was careful to show leadership in the national interest but allow the backbenchers to maintain the pretence of opposition. When the Beveridge Report was brought before the Commons, the majority of Labour MPs voted for its immediate implementation. Although the government, of which Attlee was a key figure, had been against this, he cannily allowed a free vote on it. Labour became associated with the reforms, and the Tories were accused of being against them.
The End of Consensus
Churchill intended to keep the war cabinet in place, at least until the war in Japan was over. However he also wanted the consent of the people to extend the parliament past a 10th year. He had conceived a four-year plan for the aftermath of war and had been a great admirer of the work Bevin had done to manage the wartime operations. The public still wanted a national government, and it was only when the election campaign began that division between the two parties was exemplified.
In late 1944, Churchill told the Conservative Party conference
“Should it fall to me, as it may do, to form a Government before the election, I shall seek the aid not only of Conservatives but of men of good will of any party and no party, who are willing to serve and thus invest our administration with a national character.”
Many leading Labour figures agreed with Churchill, including Bevin, Morrison and Dalton. Churchill proposed holding Britain’s first referendum, asking the public the question ‘Should Parliament be renewed?’ Attlee agreed to take the proposal to the Labour NEC, once he had added in a commitment to “do our utmost to implement the proposals of social security and full employment contained in the White Paper which we have laid before Parliament”. The Daily Mirror, the most anti Tory newspaper, felt an early election would be a betrayal of the troops stationed around the globe still.
Attlee maintained neutrality on the issue, letting Bevin present it to the Labour conference, where it was immediately voted down. When it was rejected by the NEC, Attlee wrote Churchill a public response, claiming that referendums are alien, un-British and a “device of dictators and demagogues”. He portrayed Labour as a government in waiting.
Perhaps there was good reason for Attlee’s flexibility on the referendum. There were still question marks over his own position as leader. Before the election, Harold Laski, the chairman of Labour’s NEC, wrote a letter to Attlee, claiming there was;
“…a widespread feeling that the continuance of your leadership is a grave hardship to our hopes of victory in the coming general election. Your resignation of the leadership would now be a great service to the Party”.
Rumours had swirled throughout the war that Herbert Morrison was being lined up to replace him. Attlee’s reply – “Dear Laski, Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted” showed that he was in no mood for political posturing. During the war had been dubbed the “the invisible man,” by the left-wing Tribune magazine, and was often overshadowed by “big beasts” around him – Bevin, Bevan, Morrison and Cripps. Many were worried that the understated Attlee could blow the biggest electoral opportunity of all time, by not pushing hard enough with a radical left-wing programme.
The Greatest Test In Our History
On the 25th May, Churchill visited the King to dissolve the parliament. The Tories made it a ‘Presidential’ style campaign, with Churchill asking the nation for a continuation of his own wartime leadership as he put forward his four-year plan for the nation. The Tory campaign was dealt a blow with the loss of Anthony Eden, who had served as Foreign Secretary during the war, through illness early on. Conservative Central Office and Lord Beaverbrook both forecast a majority of at least 100 seats for Churchill.
Labour looked to seize their moment. Three months prior to the election, Labour had published their call to arms; ‘Let Us Face the Future Together’. It opened with;
VICTORY IN WAR MUST BE FOLLOWED BY A PROSPEROUS PEACE
Britain’s coming Election will be the greatest test in our history of the judgement and common sense of our people. The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that – it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour-saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them.
Labour had the better organisation, and with a manifesto ready to go, they ensured that it would be distributed to two million people, alongside the production of twelve million iconic posters and leaflets. Labour had kick-started their campaign in Blackpool, at the summer conference where amongst others, a short-sleeved Denis Healey addressed the delegates in his military uniform. Labour’s 1945 programme was the product of a conscious effort of radical policy renewal that had begun in the aftermath of their 1931 electoral disaster.
Furthermore, Labour would draw upon public apprehensions about the Tories that pre-dated the war. In the lead up to the creation of the war cabinet, Labour had successfully portrayed the previous Tory governments of the 1930s as ‘The Guilty Men’. Shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk, a pamphlet was published called “Guilty Men”, which blamed the Conservatives for the failure in 1930s foreign policy.
They claimed that Tories had failed the nation in the run up to war, in maintaining peace through their policy of appeasement, and having inadequately equipped the troops. Once more, Churchill had agreed with Labour’s assessment. Labour dug out an old Churchill quote to put on their election leaflets. From a speech given in October 1938, he had argued;
“They (the Tories) have left us in the hour of trial without adequate national defence or effective international security”
For the public, the formation of the Coalition in 1940 was an admission of failed Tory policies. The public may not have blamed Churchill for the mistakes that led to war, but they did not trust the party to lead them through the peace. Labour pounced on this, and placed it as part of a wider socialist programme, with future prevention of war being just as important as domestic reform.
Some Kind of Gestapo
The first broadcast of the election would prove to be a pivotal one, and it would have a profound effect on the tone of the election as a whole. Churchill began by expressing his regret at the breakup of the coalition. “I know that many of my Labour colleagues would have been glad to carry on” before lamenting that “Our Socialist and Liberal friends felt themselves forced, therefore, to put party before country. They have departed and we have been left to carry the nation’s burden”. He then went on to deliver his now infamous attack on socialism;
No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.
The next day The Times headlined the speech “‘Vote National, Not Party.’”, which had been Churchill’s intention. However, it was the comparison to the Nazi Gestapo that created a bigger furore. The political context of the speech is very important. It came just weeks after the end of the war, as news began to filter through to the electorate of the horrors of Nazi Germany, particularly with the liberation of Belsen and the discovery of death camps. To compare the Labour party to a Gestapo had been misplaced, wide of the public mood, and only enhanced the perception that Churchill was out of touch with the needs of the country. This was perhaps understandable, having devoted much energy to the war effort, he had overlooked the desperation for post war rebuilding. It allowed Attlee to offer the riposte that “He (Churchill) has rather old-fashioned views about fighting an election”.
Attlee’s reply to Churchill was broadcast a day later, on the evening of 5 June:
When I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech last night, in which he gave such a travesty of the policy of the Labour Party, I realised at once what was his object. He wanted the electors to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill, the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr. Churchill, the party leader of the Conservatives. He feared lest those who had accepted his leadership in war might be tempted out of gratitude to follow him further. I thank him for having disillusioned them so thoroughly. The voice we heard last night was that of Mr. Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.
For a man who supposedly had ‘much to be modest about’ he skilfully undermined Churchill’s ‘project fear’ and Labour could now argue that Churchill did not actually believe a word he was saying. Herbert Morrison, for example, asked why he had been sent to the Home Office to be in charge of the police if Churchill had these fears. If Churchill did believe Labour had ulterior motives, than it was himself who lacked the political judgement, for appointing them to the key positions in order to win the war.
Whilst some academics have downplayed the role of the speech, the reports from 1945 highlight the influence it had on the public. In the ‘Mass-Observation’ post election report they claimed “It would be difficult to exaggerate the disappointment and genuine distress aroused by this speech”. Whilst “The British General Election of 1945’ book argues that the broadcasts “exercised a profound influence on the subsequent development of the campaign and perhaps on the final verdict.”
As Nick Clegg discovered in 2015 to his detriment, it is difficult to play ‘Project Fear’ with a party you were working with a couple of weeks previous. With Churchill’s worst qualities exemplified, the public were left asking the question “If you really thought Labour were totalitarian, why did you ask them to continue in your government?”
A Collection of ‘Rogues, Monopolists and Profiteers’
With few Conservative ‘stars’ on the campaign trail, it was left to Lord Beaverbrook to tackle the Labour party head on. Attlee had already identified Beaverbrook as a poisonous influence on the mind of Churchill. There was history between the two as Beaverbrook had been a member of the war cabinet, and had asked Churchill to sack Attlee in February 1942. During the election campaign, Beaverbrook attacked Bevin for the food shortage, claiming that the Defence Regulation 58a was hampering Britain’s supply progress. The regulation in question had been supported by the war cabinet and had enabled the government to control the nation’s manpower. In the same speech Beaverbrook claimed that only Churchill could work with Stalin, “My attitude is one of complete admiration and absolute support for Joseph Stalin. He is a great figure.”
In Beaverbrook, the Tories had the support of his Daily Express newspaper, which along with the Daily Mirror was the most read of the time. This was a period were the news proprietors had a stronghold over the public discourse, with no other media outlets available. For Labour, the support of The Daily Herald and The Daily Mirror was crucial, with the latter being the most popular among the armed forces, with 30% of soldiers reportedly reading it.
The Daily Herald portrayed the Tories as a party of ‘rogues, monopolists and profiteers’ who put politics before the country. One headline described them as ‘Frauds, Cheats, Wrigglers Seek Power.’ Whilst the Labour press dedicated much of their copy to Bevin who was seen as the star of the party. On the 18th June, the Daily Mirror splashed on ‘Labour will build 5,000,000 houses quickly – Bevin outlines his plan’
The most striking feature of the Daily Mirror’s election coverage was their ‘Vote For Him’ campaign. The official “British general election of 1945’ book claimed that “this may well have won more votes for the Labour party than any other journalistic exercise”. The campaign aimed to highlight issues of the serviceman and lamented the fact that an election had been rushed through while many were still serving on the front line. Their slogan ‘I’ll Vote For Him’ first appeared on the front page on the 25th June and remained there until polling day. It culminated in a final election day ‘Don’t Lose It Again’ front page. At a time when newspapers remained one of the the biggest influences on political education and voting behavior, the commitment to Labour had been invaluable.
Yet signs of a Labour victory were there for all to see. Of the nine Gallup/News Chronicle polls taken from June 1943 up to the election, Labour had been ahead in every one, enjoying a 20-point lead in February 1945. Polls however were a new phenomenon, and many trusted their gut instinct. On the day of the election the leader in the Daily Express said: “There are reasons for expecting that, by tonight, Mr Churchill and his supporters will be returned to power”
As the polls opened just 9 weeks after the end of the war, many British troops were still stationed across the globe. Temporary polling stations were erected for the soldiers and this meant the outcome would be delayed until the 26th July.
During the period whilst votes were being counted, the ‘Big three’ countries were due to meet in Potsdam, for a post-war conference entitled ‘TERMINAL’. It was possible that the Prime Minister would change hands during this period. In a final show of national solidarity, Churchill invited Attlee to attend the conference and meet with Stalin and Truman. This was seen as a unifying gesture by Churchill, who still expected to be returned to power with an 80 seat majority.
Indeed Attlee agreed with the predictions, reportedly telling a US official that ‘he did not think the party had a chance of gaining a majority in parliament and he hoped to gain enough support to force Churchill to listen to their views’.
As the election results drew closer, Churchill confidently told the conference that he and Attlee had some small business to attend to, “but we shall be back by the 27th July. Or at least some of us will be”. As Britain looked towards a new future, it was inconceivable that the man who had saved the world from Nazism would not be there to orchestrate and enjoy the fruits of peace.
At 7pm on the 26th July, Attlee received a letter from Churchill tendering his resignation. With 47.7% of the vote, Labour had secured their greatest ever result, winning a total of 393 seats to the Tories 210. The Guardian reported that on 27 July 1945: Britain is a socialist country
After steering the country through its darkest hour and subsequently leading the party to its greatest ever result, you’d expect the party to finally cut Attlee some slack. But there would be one final twist. Expecting a defeat, Herbert Morrison had written to Attlee before the results had been announced, declaring his intention to stand against him when the new PLP met for the first time.
Once the results came through, Attlee was put in a difficult position. The new Labour government would look shambolic if Attlee went to the palace to be appointed Prime Minister, only to be forced into a resignation a few days later. Yet if he did not go to the palace, Labour would be in the surreal position of winning an election but offering no leader for the top job.
In a crucial meeting on the 26th July, Attlee met with Morrison and Bevin at Transport House, with the party secretary Morgan Phillips also present. At one point Morrison left the room to speak to Stafford Cripps, the would-be Chancellor, on the phone. He was endorsing Morrison’s view of consulting the PLP before appointing a new leader. Then Bevin asked Phillips ‘If I stood against Clem, would I win?’ Phillips said that he thought Bevin would. Bevin then turned to Attlee and told him “Clem, you go to the palace straight away.”
On the first day of the new parliament, the massed ranks of Labour MPs gave a rousing rendition of the Red Flag to a baffled and outraged Tory establishment. The new intake of Labour MPs included a radical and diverse set of characters – youngsters who would go on to dominate the party, and the 20th century. They included , Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, and James Callaghan.
In electing a Labour government, the voters had signalled an end to wartime austerity. They wanted change. They wanted the basics for a good life; ‘Food, Jobs and Housing’. During their darkest hour they had been offered a tantalising glimpse of a ‘New Jerusalem’ when Beveridge outlined his vision for the new world.
Churchill meanwhile was left bewildered by the result. It was left to his daughter, Sarah, to offer an assessment of the new Britain. In a letter to him, she wrote that the public now believed that:
“socialism as practised in the War did no one any harm and quite a lot of people good. The children of this country have never been so well-fed or healthy. What milk there was shared equally? The rich did not die because their meat ration was no larger than the poor, and there is no doubt that this common sharing and feeling of sacrifice was one of the strongest bonds that unified us. So, why, they say, cannot this common feeling of sacrifice be made to work as effectively in peace?”