‘Ask your father’: the general election of 1945

Martin Pugh reveals why so many Britons were prepared to reject Winston Churchill and vote Labour when they went to the polls 65 years ago

A portrait of Winston Churchill

This article was first published in the June 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In June 1945, a 12-year-old Sheffield schoolboy, Roy Hattersley, began enthusiastically distributing Labour party election leaflets. These incorporated parts of the Daily Mirror, including its famous strip cartoon of ‘Jane’, a character who delighted readers by exposing much of her body. But the cautious Labour agent, one Alderman Ballard, condemned the leaflet as “pornography”, saying, as Hattersley recalled: “It would be quite wrong for a boy of my age to handle such material”.

This episode neatly captures the spirit of 1945, especially the caution of the elderly Labour leaders who had no idea they were on the verge of winning a landslide victory. On 26 July, Labour emerged from the count with 47.8 per cent of the vote and an unprecedented 393 seats, with a gain of 179 seats. Churchill’s Conservatives mustered just 39.8 per cent and 213 seats.

Since May 1940 Clement Attlee and his colleagues had been so closely involved with Winston Churchill in a coalition government that they had become largely isolated from opinion in the country. Admittedly the Gallop polls had shown a Labour lead of 12 per cent since 1943, but as the polls were a novelty, no one believed them. Politicians relied on the precedent of 1918 when Lloyd George had scored a huge victory as ‘The Man Who Won The War’, and they expected Churchill to do the same. Leaders of both parties anticipated a Conservative majority of about 30 seats. So why were they all so completely wrong?

Part of the explanation is that Churchill’s personal popularity was not enough to compensate for the drawbacks of his party. The Conservatives’ reputation for patriotism had been shredded by their perceived reluctance to tackle the fascist dictators vigorously. “Let us remember,” Roy Jenkins told his Solihull voters, “that hiding behind Mr Churchill’s war record are hundreds of Tory MPs who sought to buy off Nazism and fascism with loans and friendship.”

Several sitting MPs had been exposed by newspapers as members of fascist organisations and one, a Captain Ramsay, was actually interned with Oswald Mosley in 1940. In Fulham the Labour candidate simply circulated large photographs of Neville Chamberlain embracing Mussolini and Hitler. “It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election,” concluded Harold Macmillan. “It was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain.”

The Labour party, on the other hand, could play the patriotic card with more credibility. During the war, Labour ministers, notably Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps, had become familiar faces and were so closely associated in the public mind with the successful war effort that memories of the collapse of the last Labour government in the economic crisis of 1929–31 had been obliterated. In 1945 Labour candidates demanded that the war be fought to a complete victory, including the defeat of Japan, and that the leading Nazis be put on trial for their crimes.

In this situation Churchill felt unsure how to handle the election. Initially he resorted to the methods used in the 1930s by trying to paint his opponents as extremists, even to the extent of suggesting a Labour government would introduce a ‘Gestapo’. This blunder damaged his own standing as a national leader and provoked huge amusement. In Reading the Labour candidate, Ian Mikardo, told his chairman to introduce him as, “Obergruppenfuhrer Mikardo” at every meeting. “That always got us off to a good start.”

Rising expectations

Nor was Churchill, despite his popularity, in tune with public opinion on domestic issues, and he felt uncomfortable with the mood of rising expectations, especially among the young. As the last general election had occurred in 1935, an unusually large proportion of the electorate was voting for the first time, and, as later studies reveal, 61 per cent of first-time voters supported Labour. They had experienced the unemployment of the 1930s and had been politicised by service in the armed forces. The Army Bureau of Current Affairs encouraged them to discuss political issues such as the Beveridge Report on reform of the social security system, despite Churchill’s objection that “such discussions [will] only provide opportunities for the professional grouser with a glib tongue”.

Many soldiers also read the Daily Mirror, which encouraged them to write to its ‘Question Time In The Mess’ column to voice their grievances, and offered advice on welfare, rights and even court martials. The evidence may be impressionistic, but it suggests that the armed forces leant towards Labour. At the count, several candidates noticed that they overtook their Conservative rival when the ballot boxes containing the forces’ votes were opened.

On the home front the Labour party maintained a much greater level of activity and retained its sense of purpose more effectively than its rivals. This is clear from the wide range of local constituency records that have become available in recent years. While the national leaders respected the truce that prevented them from challenging the other parties in by-elections, it was not, as Attlee reminded his followers, a political truce. Consequently, from 1943 onwards, local parties freely organised political meetings, conducted propaganda and sent delegates to the annual party conferences throughout the war. At the 1943 conference, the young Barbara Castle delighted delegates by demanding the immediate implementation of the Beveridge Report, complaining that people were always offered “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today!”

The election may also have been influenced by a spirit of egalitarianism and equality of sacrifice engendered by the Blitz. “This has been a people’s war,” wrote one candidate in 1945. “We of the Labour party intend that a people’s peace shall follow.” It is significant that, despite the patriotism of the union leaders, the number of strikes increased every year from 1939 to 45. Many workers remembered their role in the First World War when their sacrifices had been rewarded by exposure to unemployment once victory had been secured. They did not intend to repeat the experience.

This mood was effectively captured in the election slogan ‘Ask Your Father’. Such sentiments also enabled Labour to propagate its policies for economic planning and nationalisation with little controversy. Candidates drew comparisons between the prolonged depression in the inter-war years and the huge increase in output and employment achieved during wartime. “What a difference a plan makes!” exclaimed AV Alexander. “Without a plan we would never have won the war.” The Daily Mirror, a pro-Conservative paper until 1935, articulated this message by defining ‘Socialism’ as a practical extension of government intervention that had worked well since 1940. It argued that Labour policy “offers a typically British solution for British problems”. In this way it helped to defuse the fears about extremist ideology that had featured in inter-war debates.

In this context, claims by some historians that the voters were really apathetic and cynical in 1945 miss the point. The turnout actually increased from 71 per cent to 73, while in the more comparable 1918 election it had been just 57 per cent. In effect many voters had been politicised, especially by issues like the Beveridge Report.

Opinion polls and Mass Observation surveys suggest that, though critical of authority, by 1945 voters had formed a positive idea about what they wanted: implementation of Beveridge, house-building and full employment. In the process a new consensus had been born that was to dominate British politics for several decades.


Attlee’s first acts

The new government had an unusually clear idea of what it wanted to achieve, and backbenchers were instructed to avoid private members’ bills and concentrate on voting the government’s legislation through. Its best-known achievements were the National Insurance Act (1946), the National Health Service (1948), and the nationalisation of industries considered to be lacking private investment, including coal, railways, gas, electricity and steel. Despite the economic problems inherited from wartime, Attlee’s chancellors, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps, managed to maintain full employment and low inflation while also generating an export-led boom by focusing resources on manufacturing rather than consumption.

Public opinion appeared remarkably stable. In 52 by-elections from 1945–50, the Labour party lost no seats except for one held by the Independent Labour party in 1948. Yet, while innovations like the NHS proved popular, support for wartime austerity measures such as food rationing began to wane. Nor was there much support for further nationalisation. By 1950 only 38 per cent of Labour voters supported proposals for the nationalisation of sugar and only 45 per cent backed the nationalisation of steel.

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Martin Pugh’s latest book, Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party, is published by The Bodley Head in 2010.