Another paper written for a class. It attempts to explain what has always been a puzzle for me: How Winston Churchill managed to lose an election right after winning World War II. It might be important for context to mention that I am an American. (Thanks SharQ)
The British election of 1945 has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Winston Churchill lost an election after the defeat of Nazi Germany. One of the greatest leaders in modern history, a man legendary for his charisma and wit, was removed from power on the eve of his greatest victory. The failure was not Churchill’s. After ten years the political climate had changed, and in the face of a well organized opposition he could not lead his party to victory alone.
The issues of the 1945 election favored the Labour Party. After the defeat of Germany, the public began to look towards national recovery as a primary concern. The primary issues were housing and employment.
Both parties offered plans to build housing, but Labour was more credible in this area. They made a campaign issue of the fact that the Conservatives could not be trusted. One pamphlet read, "In 1918 the Government promised ‘Homes for Heroes’ for our servicemen. They promised to build 500,000 houses in three years. Well, in 1919 they built 700 houses." Meanwhile, the pamphlet went on to say that meaningful housing legislation was not passed until 1924 under the Labour Government.1 In Let Us Face The Future, a party document containing its beliefs and policies, Labour claimed that the Tories were tied to the "vested interests" of "private enterprise." As a result, they could not do what was required, namely a "full programme of land planning and drastic action to ensure an efficient building industry that will neither burden the community with a crippling financial load nor impose bad conditions and heavy unemployment on its workpeople."2
Labour had an advantage on the issue of employment as well. To modernize the economy, the Labour party offered a comprehensive Five-Year Plan. It involved public planning of the economy, achieved through controls and nationalization of certain industries. Labour believed this was the only way to achieve full employment. The government, investing in public industries, would take the well-being of all citizens into account in its decisions. By contrast, private investment gave decision making power to the few rich people that owned companies or invested in them. As a result, Labour believed it was in the best interest of the nation for the government to control the economy through investment, while controlling private investment to prevent undue influence. To achieve this, Labour introduced plans for a National Investment Board that would plan the economy. In addition to controls on investment, Labour wanted to continue rationing to prevent the exploitation of consumers by monopolists and profiteers.
Certain industries were to be nationalized altogether, instead of simply influenced by government investment. Specifically, these industries were, "Fuel and Power, Coal-mining, Inland Transport, and Iron and Steel."3 This was endorsed not because of any idealistic views, but merely because Labour believed that it would be more efficient because of the circumstances these industries faced. Combined with government investment and controls, nationalization contributed to a complete system of national planning that Labour believed would ensure full employment and a competitive economy.
The Conservative Party came at the same problem from a different direction. While accepting that rationing would still be required as a temporary measure as there was a shortage of goods, they rejected national planning as doomed to failure. Government control would stifle British ingenuity and creativity, and replace it with a bloated bureaucracy. By removing the benefits given to invention, a planned economy would make the long run economy fail. Further, it would stifle the freedom necessary to a democracy. According to Churchill,
To find plenty of work with individual liberty to choose one’s job, free enterprise must be given the chance and encouragement to plan ahead. Confidence in sound government, mutual cooperation between industry and the State, rather than control by the State—a lightening of the burdens of excessive taxation—these are the first essentials.4
Instead of national planning to stifle private investment, Conservatives said the government should lower tax
es and do what it could to encourage
it. Private investment would increase innovation
, and result in a more varied economy that could respond flexibly to change.
Aside from domestic economic policy, the Conservative Party tried to make an issue of foreign policy. While Nazi Germany had been defeated, Japan had not. Further actions still needed to be taken to restore the world order, and Churchill was the most capable man in this area. Labour responded to this simply by stating that a Japanese victory was already inevitable. The electorate seemed to agree, as there was not much interest in this issue.
The issues the electorate was interested in were all domestic in nature. Specifically, housing ranked as the most important concern, followed by full employment. International policy ranked a distant fifth. With these priorities in mind, it is easy to see the clear benefit to Labour. With housing as the most important issue, Labour had an enormous advantage. This was especially true in cities where the housing crunch was strongest.
As for their differing approaches to the economy and employment, Labour seemed to do better there as well. The working classes favored Labour’s policies. This is not very surprising, as national planning would result in immediate improvements in the employment level, while the Conservative approach, even if successful, would take a long time to bear fruit. In addition, the entire purpose of national planning was to take account of the views of workers in determining the fate of the economy, as private industry responded only to the wishes of the owners. It is clear then that workers would align more closely with Labour on these issues.
By contrast, the wealthy favored the Conservative stance. This too is rather clear. The Labour policies were aimed at limiting their power. Owners in the energy industry would lose their businesses as a result of nationalization. Others would have their ability to invest limited, and have less opportunities for private enterprise as the government controlled these issues. The Conservative stance, however, was decidedly pro-business, encouraging investment and lowering taxes. As a result, the wealthy would prefer the Conservatives.
The middle class is less clear. It did not have clear reasons for choosing either party over the other. Instead, it was set to choose the party it believed was most correct in its evaluation of the best ways to fix the economy. On this issue, however, the middle class favored the Labour position. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the Conservative Party was in power for twenty years before the election of 1945, except for the short period in 1929-1931 where Labour was in power, although even then the Conservatives had considerable influence. During all this time Britain was faced with high unemployment, and it seemed, fairly or unfairly, as if the Conservatives had already proven that their methods were ineffective.5 This especially affected younger voters that grew up during the unemployment of the 1930’s, and whose ideologies were greatly influenced by it. By contrast, during the "National" Government under Churchill, national planning was very successful in helping the war effort. Moreover, it was largely the Labour ministers that controlled domestic policies at this time.6 As a result, national planning seemed to be a good choice for the economy, and so the middle class gave its support to Labour on this issue. Thus, on both housing and employment, the two most important issues of the election, Labour had the more popular policies.
Labour had an advantage in party strategy as well. The election of 1945 came five years after it was supposed to. The "National" Government formed by Churchill in 1935 should have been dissolved in 1940. The election was postponed while Britain was engaged in World War II, and was only held after the defeat of Nazi Germany. During this time the two parties held an electoral truce, meaning that neither would contest a seat already held by the other party in any by-elections. The Conservative Party believed this implied a political truce in which both parties ceased all political activities in their constituencies, while the Labour Party never recognized this implication.
As a result, the Labour Party held a party conference every year, in which members would debate specific party policy and prepare for the election that must come eventually. By contrast, the Conservative Party didn’t hold such a conference until 1943, and even then did not discuss specific policy or the coming election. Only in 1945 did the Conservative Party finally begin addressing these issues. Further, the news of the election came while the Labour Party was already assembled for its annual conference in Blackpool, allowing it to concretely discuss strategy. The Labour Party began well organized and prepared, while the Conservative Party was left scrambling to catch up.
Labour was able to offer a comprehensive explanation of all their policies. Indeed, they were instructed at the Blackpool Conference to argue for nationalization in each industry on its merits, instead of offering a general denunciation of capitalism.7 When both parties were given ten radio broadcasts, Labour had ten different people speak, each about a different subject, so that as a whole they represented a cohesive and coherent view of the Labour party. Their first broadcast was taken by Mr. Attlee, who gave a general outline of the planks of Labour policy, and each subsequent speaker expounded on a different aspect of it.
The Conservative Party, on the other hand, was far less organized or eloquent in defense of its positions. In his first radio broadcast, Winston Churchill unintentionally began a nationwide campaign trend in what has come to be known as his "Gestapo Speech." In it, he stated that, "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…Socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas of freedom…there can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism."8 Since that speech, Tory candidates began attacking Labour by engaging in broad sweeping attacks against socialism, rather than focusing on the specific merits of each policy proposal. This was particularly ineffective because, as was stated before, national planning was instrumental in the war effort, and so people were already inclined through experience to believe that socialism was not dangerous. Instead of its intended effect, this strategy merely angered Labour voters. To others it smacked of "dirty politics" for the Tories to so quickly attack Labour’s integrity after having worked closely with it for ten years in Churchill’s National Government.
A second major campaign tactic similarly backfired. Churchill asked Attlee to attend the Potsdam Conference as a counselor, so that even if the Conservatives lost the election, foreign relations could continue undisturbed, and Attlee agreed. Harold Laski, the Labour Party National Executive, stated in public that, "It is of course essential that if Mr. Attlee attends this gathering he shall do so in the role of an observer only."9 Laski went on to say that the National Executive, not the Party Leader, should determine foreign policy. Churchill seized on this as an issue, stating that policy should be determined by an elected official, which Laski was not, and that Laski’s positions on foreign policy were dramatically different from those Churchill endorsed. Attlee, in a calm response, simply stated that he was the authority in the Labour Party, and would not take orders from Laski. When Churchill pushed this issue again, he was seen as antagonizing the Labour Party for a second time in two weeks, despite the legitimate concerns he initially voiced. Thus the two major issues the Conservative Party decided to push ended up angering the electorate instead of winning votes.
A final problem in the Conservative strategy was the failure of its leaders to campaign on behalf of candidates. It was customary for leaders of both parties to travel to constituencies to speak on behalf of local candidates, and the Labour Party leaders did this, as usual. The Conservatives however, generally did not, although Winston Churchill himself went on a massive series of such trips. The Labour Party was united, tightly organized, and campaigned well both for its candidates and its policies. In stark contrast was the Conservative Party. Disorganized, its campaign essentially consisted of attacking the evils of socialism, without going in depth into its own policies, let alone its opponents.
In the face of both issues and party strategies that favored Labor, the only hope for the Conservative Party lay in Winston Churchill, but he seemed to be more than enough to meet the challenge. Churchill’s approval rating was incredibly high. He was a hero who people universally agreed was responsible for the British victory over Nazi Germany. It seemed impossible that voters could turn out someone who was regarded as one of Great Britain’s greatest leaders. Conservatives understood this, and used Churchill as a campaign issue as much as they did the evils of socialism. Posters declared, "Help him finish the job."10 While the Labour Party gave their ten radio broadcasts to ten different people, the Conservative Party gave four to Churchill. On the basis of Churchill’s name alone numerous newspapers predicted a comfortable Conservative majority. Even Attlee stated that his highest hopes had been set at a Conservative majority of 40 seats.11
Nevertheless, Churchill’s ability to get votes for the Conservative Party was not as great as supposed. There are multiple reasons for this. First and most important was the fact that Churchill was viewed as an outsider in the Conservative Party. While many liked Churchill himself, they were unwilling to vote for a party they did not. This was especially true as some feared that the Conservatives would force Churchill to follow their policies rather than his own. Further, Labour actively campaigned on this issue, quoting speeches from early in Churchill’s career where he spoke against the Conservatives. One pamphlet stated, "To-day the Tory Party is seeking to get a new lease of power by sheltering behind the prestige of a man who was distrusted and rejected by them before the war."12
A second reason that Churchill did not gain as many votes for his party as expected was that many made a distinction between Churchill as a war-leader and Churchill as peace-time leader. In several polls, people gave Churchill high marks for foreign policy, but were concerned that he might not be as well equipped for handling post-war problems.13 Indeed, among some there was the view that, since he was such an excellent leader in war-time, he must not be as good a leader in times of peace.
Third, while Churchill was enormously popular in most areas, in others he was not. Specifically, servicemen during the war seemed to have a much lower approval rating of Churchill, perhaps because they did not hear his wartime broadcasts which had made so many others respect him. Others, such as factory workers, seemed reluctant to accept him as anything other than a war leader. (From Catchpole: Churchill wasn't really trusted by the working class ever since he sent the army in to break a miners' strike in Wales.) In other areas they were still pro-Labour.14
Finally, while Churchill was very well respected, his opponents were as well. Attlee and Bevan were both members of Churchill’s National Government, and so shared in some of the credit given to Churchill, although to a much smaller extent. These factors combined to make Churchill’s influence on the election much smaller than expected.
Without Churchill as a compelling reason to vote Conservative, Labour received a landslide victory. Labour received 48.2% of the vote, compared to the Tories’ 39.7%. This translated to 394 seats in Parliament, while the Conservatives received only 196.15 Labour’s greatest victories occurred in areas such as Hackney, Stoke Newington, and Shoreditch, which are largely working class districts.16 One of the areas with the largest swings to Labour was residential area of London, where housing would be a very important issue. Meanwhile, the seats the Conservative Party tended to win were both rural, so that housing was not a pressing issue, and relatively wealthy, so that the issue of national planning would dominate other concerns. Examples of these districts are seaside resorts such as Bath and Bournemouth.
Why did Labour win the 1945 election? The answer lies primarily in the shift in public opinion towards the left, caused by the instability of the previous fifteen years and the success of wartime national planning. One Gallup poll stated that 84% of people had made up their minds before the election even began.17 This victory was certainly helped by the greater organization and better campaigning of the Labour Party, but to what extent is uncertain. So now we can see why Churchill lost an election he seemed certain to win. People did not vote against Churchill so much as they voted for the Labour Party and against the Conservative. Churchill did not lose the election of 1945, outside forces beyond his control lost it for him.
1R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 52.
3Ibid. pg. 55
4Ibid. pg. 53.
5David Childs, Britain Since 1945 (Great Britain, J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd., 1986), pg. 13.
6Martin Pugh, Britain Since 1789 (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1999), pg. 210.
7R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 144.
8Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Never Despair (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), pg. 32.
9Ibid. pg. 46.
10R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 82a.
11John Colville, The Fringes of Power, 10 Downing Street Diaries (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1985), pg. 611.
12R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 51.
13David Childs, Britain Since 1945 (Great Britain, J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd., 1986), pg. 12.
14R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 239.
15Michael Kinnear, The British Voter (London, Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd., 1981), pg. 55.
16Robert Waller, The Almanac of British Politics (London, Croom Helm Ltd., 1983), pg. 32-33.
17R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Great Britain, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), pg. 269.