When Britain entered the Second World War in September 1939 the country was governed by a National Government, a coalition of all the political parties, as well as a number of individuals who belonged to none of the parties. Conservative politician, Neville Chamberlain, was Prime Minister but by spring 1940 he bowed to pressure to resign, with another all-party coalition taking centre stage, led by Conservative, Winston Churchill.
Churchill famously led the country in defeating Germany but just as the war was ending the war-time coalition broke up, with Labour leaving the coalition, sparking the election of July 1945. After Churchill’s successes in rallying the country behind Britain’s fighting forces many believed another win for the Conservatives was a foregone conclusion. Instead it was Labour who won a landslide victory, led by Clement Atlee.
The magnitude of the loss was historic. The Labour Party received 47.7% of the vote, compared to the Conservatives’ 36.2% and the Liberal Party’s 9%, with the electoral swing from Tory to Labour still being the largest swing in British post-war politics.
Labour were able to remind voters of the terrible depression of the 1930s – a period when the Conservatives led the National Government of the day. Housing, full employment, social welfare and the newly promised National Health Service stood at the top of the list for most voters – all things that Labour were focused on. Churchill’s message was ‘securing peace’ particularly in Japan, where the war continued. But the British people wanted everyday life at home to improve and they believed it was Labour who could achieve that for them.
Labour had campaigned vociferously for the adoption of the Beveridge Report of 1942, which recommended widespread social reform, they promised nationalisation of struggling industries, and huge rebuilding effort providing much-needed homes for bombed out families. And so they were elected and then the hard work had to begin.
Over the next few years Labour followed up on many of its promises, with the birth of the NHS and social reform, nationalising coal in 1946 as well as the Bank of England, electricity and telecommunications in 1947, the railways in 1948 and gas the following year. Changes that left a changed landscape in terms of public/private ownership, while at the same time reinforcing the power of the working people – through trade unions.
It was during the war years that trade unions had come into their own, with the appointment of Ernest Bevin, a staunch trade unionist, as Minister of Labour in Churchill’s coalition government. Once Labour was in power the unions were frequently called upon for their opinion. After all, when banded together they had a powerful voice – by 1951 trade union membership was more than nine million – an all-time high. Many industries now had national pay bargaining but the economic difficulties of post-war Britain wouldn’t go unsupported. In March 1948, despite austerity biting workers across the country, Arthur Deakin, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, achieved agreement from the Trades Union Council (TUC) to accept the government’s proposal for a wage freeze that would last for more than two years.
The results of the next general election – in February 1950 – reflected public opinion after five years of a Labour government. Labour achieved a second term, but this time with the slimmest of majorities – their majority reduced from 146 seats to just five. It surely didn’t help that petrol, confectionery and meat rationing was still in place some five years after the end of the war. Labour’s austerity measures had affected everyone and it seemed that middle income voters had had enough, leading to a ‘revolt of the suburbs’. It would lead to a difficult year or so for the Labour government, with another election being called as quickly as October 1951. Of which more in a later post…!