What Did 'The People' Want?: The Meaning of the 1945 General Election

by Steven Fielding
What Did 'The People' Want?: The Meaning of the 1945 General Election
Steven Fielding
The Historical Journal
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University of Saljord

ABSTRACT. Labour's victory at the general election of 1945, thejirst in which the party won an absolute majority in the house of commons, had fundamental implications for Britain's post-war history. Despite this, historians have failed to examine the popular political temper which made Labour's term of o$ice possible. Instead, they have largely assumed that the Second World War radicalized the public, turning an unprecedented number into enthusiastic Labour voters. Whilst not denying that the war had a profound impact on the politics of some sections of society this article proposes a rather dzfferent perspective to that normally offered. Instead of promoting pro-Labour sentiment it seems that the conflict left many members of the public disengaged from the political process and cynical about the motives of all politicians. As a consequence, rather than have Labour hold o@ce by itselfthegenerally favoured outcome appears to have been the formation of aprogressive coalition committed to the implementation of the Beveridge report. However, in reality, electors who did not want to see the return of a Conservative government had no choice but to vote 'straight left'.

We sat on the slope of the Head to watch the circus, and I saw a group sitting near in very earnest conversation, with their heads together. I'd have loved to go and butt in. I love being in an argument, and thought, 'Perhaps they are talking about the atomic bomb -or the result of the Election.' I've very good hearing, and when I'd got used to the different sounds around, I could hear what they were discussing -the new cold perm! Every woman I know is interested in it -another revolution, when curly hair can be assured by a method so simple that it can be done at home. (Nella Last, diary entry for I I August 1945)'

The general election of July 1945 is widely considered to be one of the most important turning points in modern British political history, comparable with the events of 1832 and 1906. The Labour party not only won its first parliamentary majority, but also introduced a wide-ranging programme of social and economic reform which provided the basis for a political consensus

* I wish to acknowledge the following for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper: Steve Constantine, Andrew Davies, James Hinton, David Howell and Tony Mason. I would especially likr to thank Nick Tiratsoo for invaluable discussions on this and related areas.

' Nella Last, Nella Last's war. A mother's diav, 193~45(London, 1g71), p. 303.


lasting over thirty years. As a consequence, much is known about the origins of various legislative measures, the main policy differences between leaders in Westminster and the preoccupations of party activists. In contrast, the hopes of ordinary voters and the reasons why an unprecedented number voted Labour remain largely shrouded in darkness. This article is the initial part of an attempt at a general reinterpretation of the popular basis of the post-war political settlement. It will firstly survey how Labour's victory has been interpreted by contemporaries and historians ;secondly, it will suggest that the importance of party to the electorate has been over-emphasized whilst the supposedly 'radical' political temper has been misinterpreted. It will conclude by suggesting that as a consequence many of the reasons behind Labour's impressive popular vote have been left obscure.

The 1945 election is the first in which historians can evaluate popular political attitudes with some hope of accuracy. This article places much reliance on the material gathered by the British Institute of Public Opinion (B.I.P.O.) and Tom Harrisson's Mass-Observation (M.O.) both of which accurately predicted Labour's largely unexpected vict~ry.~

B.I.P.O.'s Gallup polls are an invaluable guide to the prevailing public mood; despite doubts about their precise accuracy it is hard to understand why many historians have been wary of using them.3 Although M.O. also conducted polls, the organization concentrated on collecting qualitative rather than quantitative evidence. This has led to the charge that much of its material, like that produced through oral history, is ~nrepresentative.~

Whilst there are potential weaknesses, against which constant guard must be kept, M.O.'s material provides the historian with one of the very few means by which an acute insight into innumerable private worlds can be gained. To reject such sources out of hand would be remarkably churlish.

Those on the left were generally agreed about the meaning of Labour's triumph. Both the Daily Herald and Daily Worker described the 1945 result as 'the People's Vict~ry'.~

The Herald's editorial, entitled 'The People Win', declared that

The performance of the British people in the General Election of 1945deserves to rank in history alongside the mightiest of their achievements ...they have proclaimed their will and their policy with an emphasis which will hearten the lovers of freedom and social justice throughout the Earth, and will stand out for all time as a great act of leadership in the building of the peace.

George H. Gallup, The Gallup internationalpublic opinion polls. Great Britain 1937-75 (2 vols., New York, 1977) ; The Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation archive, university of Sussex. Subsequent references to Gallup polls are taken from volume I.

Tom Nossiter, 'Surveys and opinion polls', in Anthony Seldon (ed.), Contemporary history. Practice and method (Oxford, 1988), pp. 55-69. Henry Pelling, review of The people's war, in History, LV, 184 (1g70), 313; Angus Calder, preface to the second (Panther) edition, The people's war (London, 1971). Daily Worker and Daib Herald, 27 July 1945.

Moreover, this was no simple election victory, but the climax of Labour's ineluctable rise, the end of'the beginning of its magnificent journey.6 Francis Williams merely reflected the consensus when he described the triumph as 'the manifestation not simply of a transitory mood at one general election, but of a genuine and cumulative increase over many years of popular support for Socialist policies that had been advanced with increasing precision in every phase of the Labour Party's history'.7 Even before the result had been announced Peter Richards suggested that the Conservatives had been on retreat well before 1939: the war had merely accelerated those processes through which Labour would inevitably win power.8 Margaret Cole felt that the party had benefited from 'the gradual awakening of millions of ordinary people to the fact of their own importance, abilities and respon~ibilities'.~

The impressive Labour showing amongst the young was attributed by Richards to pre-war 'advances in educational standards'.'' It seemed that after so many trials and tribulations the nation had been finally won for Labour's vision of socialism; the party had at last achieved a majority with which to introduce the new order. H. L. Beales was but one commentator to suggest that the 1945 victory was irreversible: Labour had come to stay."

There was a widespread assumption that, having voted for the party, the public had fully understood and approved Labour's programme. Fifteen years after the event Herbert Morrison recalled that 'the people voted in 1945 with an honest and determined awareness of the issues at stake'.'' The Economist declared that 'Beyond any possibility of mistake, the country wants a Labour Government and a Socialist Programme'. Unusually, this opinion was shared with the Daib Worker which talked of Labour's 'clear mandate to go full speed ahead for the programme with which it went to the country'.13 Cole confidently asserted that 'The people who voted for it [a Labour government] voted for a real change in the direction and aims of their country, and knew that they were doing so ...If the Government wants a mandate it has got a thumping one to do all that is necessary.. .'14

Historians are generally agreed that between the retreat from Dunkirk in I940 and the 1945 general election there was, what Henry Pelling has described as, 'a steady strengthening of left-wing feeling'.15 The main point of debate has been the depth of this sentiment and whether Labour can be said to have accurately represented the new public mood or stood some way behind it. Kenneth Morgan has stated that 'Labour alone seemed to understand and

'K. 0. Morgan, Labour in power, 1945-51 (Oxford, 1984), pp. 7-9.

' Francis Williams, F$y years march (London, rg51), p. 358.

Peter G. Richards, 'The political temper', Political Quarterly, xvr, r (1g45), 57-66.

Margaret Cole, The general election of1945 and after (London, 1g45), p. 17.

lo Peter G. Richards, 'The Labour victory: election figures', Political Quarterly, xvr, 4 (r945),

356. l1 H. L. Beales, 'Has Labour come here to stay?', Political Quarterly, X~III,(r947), 59-60.

r l2 Herbert Morrison, An autobiography (London, rg60), p. 232. l3 Economist, 28 Aug. 1945; Daily Worker, 27 July 1945. l4 Cole, 1945, p. 24. l5 Henry Pelling, 'The 1945 general election reconsidered ', Historical Journal, XXIII, (rg80),

41 1.

project the new mood' whilst Paul Addison even suggested that it was 'Mr Attlee's consensus' that emerged after Dunkirk.16 In contrast, Augus Calder and Edward Thompson have confirmed Ralph Miliband's rejection of this case.17 He has suggested that the war 'caused the emergence of a new popular radicalism, more widespread than at any time in the previous hundred years'. Furthermore, Miliband has stated that this radicalism had 'powerful ideological overtones' being democratic, anti-Fascist, pro-Russian and in favour of individual freedom and social equality. Although not 'for the most part a formed socialist ideology' this radicalism was 'eager for major, even fundamental change in British society after the war'.'' Whilst endorsing the claim that 'the electorate was in truth far ahead of its leaders', D. N. Pritt has ventured further than Miliband by indicating that the British people were in possession of 'at least a half-formed socialist ideology ...had shaken off much of their indifference to politics, and decided .. . [to] get themselves a different kind of government'.'g James Hinton has even intimated that a 'revolutionary spirit' emerged during the ~onflict.~'

Whilst the emergence of an anti-Conservative consensus after 1940 is undeniable, what this new mood represented in a positive sense is by no means clear. This is evident from the difficulties faced by historians in their attempts to define 'popular radicalism', apparent in Miliband's characterization cited above. Others have also been unable to resolve the puzzle. Calder noted that the consciousness which had emerged in the services by 1945 could be variously described as revolutionary, radical or apatheti~.~'Hinton has suggested that the success of the Coventry Communist party in 1941-2 was the result of support for the Soviet Union and British nationalism, as a balance between class struggle and class c~llaboration.~~

However, if popular radicalism had one distinctive characteristic, it was hostility to the 'old gang', consisting of pre-war political parties, politicians and civil servants. Calder, in a perhaps overly romantic way, has drawn attention to the expansion of areas in which self-activity expressed in the form of the home guard, A.R.P. and fire watching was encouraged by the authorities: it was in this sense 'the people's war'. Through contrasting their own strenuous efforts with the politicians' at times feeble and incompetent handling of events the population became disenchan- ted with the existing political order. The legend of Dunkirk contributed to this

l6 Morgan, Labour in power, p. 44; Paul Addison, The road to 1945 (London, 1977), p. 278.

l7 Calder, People's war; Edward Thompson, 'Mr Attlee and the Gadarene swine', Guardian, 3 Mar. 1984 l8 Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary socialism (London, 1979), pp 272-4. l9 D. N. Pritt, The Labour government, 1945-51 (London, 1963),pp. 9-29, z0 James Hinton, Labour and socialism (Brighton, 1983),p. 165.

Angus Calder, 'The Common Wealth party 1942-1945' (unpublished D. Phil. dissertation, university of Sussex, 1968, 2 vols.), 1, p. 273. "James Hinton, 'Coventry Communism: a study of factory politics in the second world war', History Workshop Journal, x, (Autumn 198o), I 12.

feeling: had not the little ships, representative of the British public, rescued the government from a disaster largely of the latter's making?23

J. B. Priestley was the one individual most associated with this new mood, having helped propagate the Dunkirk myth and established a reputation for representing the 'little man' through frequent radio broadcasts. Priestley was also a leading progressive who called for the creation of a 'vital democracy' to replace the interwar 'false democracy '. This belief became the underlying principle behind Common Wealth's projected reconstruction of British society.24 However, as Common Wealth was to discover, mobilizing a disillusioned population in support of a coherent programme of substantive reform was by no means easy. Priestley himself was acutely aware that the people were to a large degree cynical and indecisive. In I 943 he addressed this section of the public

One moment you are crying: 'We must have changes.' The next moment you are muttering: 'But there won't be any real changes. ' Hope, doubt, despair come flashing, flickering, darkening. To-day you say: 'We must do it ourselves. ' Tomorrow you may be saying again: 'They won't do anything, and we'll have to put up with it.'25

Priestley's wartime novels expanded on his suspicion that the majority either doubted the possibility of post-war reform or were completely unaware of the need for it. As one character confided to herself in his 1943 armaments factory novel Dqlight on Saturday,

some of these girls were only half alive. How were we to create a really vital democratic society-out of such dim, vague people? This girl Nelly Dutton, for instance. All she seemed to care about was not walking too far to her bus and not annoying her idiotic mother.26

Although Priestley's 1945 Three men in new suits concluded optimistically, with the three demobbed soldiers vowing to build a better Britain, there is little doubt left in the reader's mind that they were confronted by an ingrained selfishness, myopia and cynicism amongst their families and friends.

A 1942 study of a Gloucestershire aircraft factory confirmed Priestley's gloom about the public's political mood. The workforce, mainly composed of compulsory female personnel, was bored, alienated, resentful and mostly uninterested in the course of the war.27 Such feelings were not confined to women civilians. Those who compiled G. D. H. Cole's 1942 survey of attitudes towards welfare reform castigated popular ignorance and apathy on the ~ubject.~'

Nicholas Monsarrat detected little enthusiasm even for the Beveridge report amongst sailors under his command. Most seamen, he suggested,

23 Calder, People's war, pp. 157-61.

24 J. B. Priestley, Out ofthe people (London, rg41), pp. 79-90.

25 Introduction to Richard Acland, How it will be done (London, 1943), pp 54.

26 J. B. Priestley, Daylight on Saturday (London, 1943)) pp. 37-8.

27 Mass-Observation, Warfactory (London, 1987 edn), pp. 9, 15, 42-3, 113, 121.

Jose Harris, 'Did British workers want the welfare state? G. D. H. Cole's survey of 1g42', in Jay Winter (ed.), The working class in modern British politics (Cambridge, 1983)) p. 2 14.

thought only of winning the war, all else was secondary. As he wrote 'there is no time and, in effect, no occasion for political intere~t'.~'

This apparent indifference can partly be explained in relation to the character of the times. Historians have emphasized the radicalizing impact of the war to the almost complete exclusion of the possibility that it might have provoked a different set of responses. The Second World War was a massive conflict which cast soldiers and war workers out of familiar surroundings into strange and alien worlds of dislocation, isolation and possible death. Most soldiers, quite understandably, wanted to do their job as quickly as possible and return to the normality of 'civvy street'.30 That many appeared confused about the future or only dimly aware of the necessity for a radical post-war settlement was perhaps understandable. If they did hold hopes for the future there was little expectation that they would be achieved. Moreover, those deeply affected by the exigencies of war demonstrated the greatest degree of cynicism about their future in a post-war world. A survey of feeling amongst the services discovered that four-fifths considered that none of the parties would do what they wanted.31

After Labour's victory some Conservatives blamed the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (A.B.C.A.) for spreading socialist propaganda. In contrast, some on the left accused the organization of being a form of 'Right-wing bromide'.32 However? its impact appears to have been more modest. Although Addison has suggested that A.B.C.A. might have made soldiers more critical of the existing order he conceded that it could also have been exploited as an opportunity for a sly smoke and nap. As an officer stationed in India, Jim Prior participated enthusiastically in A.B.C.A. debates which he claimed were 'regarded by most soldiers as no more than a welcome respite from more serious and warlike a~tivities'.~~

Certainly A.B.C.A.'s director W. E. Williams never claimed that his organization was able to overcome ingrained political fatalism.34

It might have been expected that as the end of the war came into sight interest in politics would have increased. However, during the summer of I 944 it was discovered that many members of the home-based forces had not registered to vote. It seems that left to their own devices about three-quarters of soldiers would have failed to fill in the appropriate form. This was evidence less of political apathy and more of inbred cynicism. Many distrusted the world of politics and politicians to such an extent they felt voting would make no difference to their lives.35 Troops stationed in Italy and India apparently

29 Nicholas Monsarrat, Three corvettes (London, 1955 edn), pp. 149-52, 30 Tom Harrison, 'The British soldier: changing attitudes and ideas', British Journal of Psychology, XXXV,2 (194.5)) 35. Mass-Observation, Thejourney home (London, 1g44), p. 106; Captain 'X', A soldier looks ahead (London, 1944), pp. 81-2. 32 Calder, 'Common Wealth', I, 272.

33 Jim Prior, A balance ofpower (London, 1986), p. 1 I.

34 Addison, Road to 1945,pp. 147-52 ; William Harrington and Peter Young, The 1945 revolution (London, 1978), pp 180-1. 35 Mass-Observation, 'Do the forces want the right to vote?', Picture Post, 19 Aug. 1944.

shared a similar type of di~enchantment.~~

One officer reporting on a series of

A.B.C.A. discussions during 1944stated that

The general line that is always taken is the We and Thy line. Here is a typical sort of argument: 'What can I do about it all? I may elect a Labour MP, but as soon as he gets into Parliament he does nothing about the things he says he is going to do. They hold all the power and They always will. We can't get it away from them. They have all the money and newspapers and everything. It always has been like that and it always will. '"

For whatever reason as many as forty per cent of service personnel abstained in the 1945general election.38 A Gallup poll held in the late summer of 1944 suggested that such feelings were not confined to those in the armed forces: only thirty-six per cent of its civilian sample felt politicians acted on behalf of the country's interests, thirty-five per cent thought they looked out for themselves and twenty-two per cent suggested they were only concerned with party advantage.

Given the level of disenchantment with Conservative-dominated interwar and wartime governments it is perhaps not surprising that Gallup polls taken between June 1943 and April 1945 showed that the Labour party was consistently supported by between thirty-seven and forty-two per cent of those interviewed. In contrast, support for the Conservatives varied between twenty-three and thirty-one per cent. Although this was the answer to the question 'If there was a general election tomorrow, how would you vote?' it is clear that a substantial minority favoured the continuation of the coalition government after the war's end.39 In August 1944forty-four per cent wanted some form of coalition under either Eden or Churchill whereas only twenty- six per cent sought an exclusively Labour government. Even as late as March

1945 forty-three per cent favoured some kind of a Conservative-Labour-Liberal combination. It is possible that Churchill and Eden were the favoured candidates for prime minister simply because they enjoyed the most publicity as leader and foreign secretary of the coalition. In January 1945whilst thirty- one per cent wanted Eden to lead a post-war government and twenty per cent Churchill, Cripps, Attlee and Morrison were chosen by only six, four and three per cent respectively.40 The suggestion that wartime office had made Labour politicians more prominent and thereby contributed to their electability thus appears unconvincing.41 However, this preference for a Conservative leader did not mean that the public wanted a post-war coalition dominated by his party. A March 1945poll revealed that fifty-five per cent of those asked were willing to vote for an anti-Conservative popular front.

Mass-Observation, Puzzled people (London, 1g47), pp 149-51. 37 Mass-Observation, Journey home, p. 107. 38 R. B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British general election of1945 (Oxford, 1947), p.

30. McCallum and Readman, 1945,p. 16.

40 Frank V. Cantwell, 'The meaning of the British election', Political Opinion Quarterly, IX (Summer 1g45), 150. 41 Pelling, ' 1945 reconsidered', p. 412.

A number of delegates at the 1944 annual conference even accused the coalition of drifting towards fascism: continued cooperation was therefore impo~sible.~~ Thus, the 1945 conference passed a resolution committing Labour to the formation of an administration which 'shall stand or fall by its socialist programme, even to the extent of again going to the country for a mandate for socialism, after having been defeated on the floor of the House'. The events surrounding the creation of the I 93I national government obviously remained in the forefront of delegates' minds, with Attlee cast as a potential MacDonald. From the platform Harold Laski reassured members that the coming conflict would indeed be a 'straight fight'.

It is a fight between private enterprise now expressed as monopoly capitalism, fighting through the Conservative Party, and socialism that realises that the new age is born and that only through the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth can we realise the purposes for which we have been fighting the war.

As the only vehicle of socialist advance it was the party's clear moral duty to win a majority and govern alone.44

That a majority of electors did not share Laski's partisanship was appreciated by a number of activists. Labour's London women's organizer directed attention to the existence of a large body of electors under thirty who had no experience of what she called 'normal political activity' and remained 'sceptical about the old parties and.. .think that "they are all the same when they got into power"'.45 The candidate for Canterbury calculated that this group of about eight million voters, many of whom had been 'cut off from political life' by active service, would decide the result. Although he felt that their predominant political disposition was left-wing they remained unattached to any specific party. Labour's task was to 'stress the hard, inescapable fact that the choice is between Labour or Conservative and that all other alternatives are illusory'.46 In the view of the party's national executive committee young voters in particular would only be confused by the alleged 'complexity' of multi-party arrangements : Labour on its own offered them 'clarity '.47

If the anti-Conservative vote went to Labour rather than the divided Liberals it was perhaps due more to a disbelief in the latter's ability to win or the absence of a candidate -the party contested less than half the available seats -rather than any strong feeling that Labour was preferable.48 M.O. noted a 'general goodwill' towards the Liberals during the campaign but

42 Roger Eatwell, The 1945-1951 Labour gouernments (London, 1979), pp. 30-1.
43 Labour party annual conference report 1944, p. "4.
44 Labour party annual conference report 1945, pp. 142-4.
45 Joan Bourne, 'Revitalising local Labour parties', Socialist Commentary, Oct. 1944, p. 336
46 Denis Bell, 'The young electors', Socialist Commentary, June 1945, pp I 14-16.
47 Election and organisation sub-committees', joint memo, 5 July 1944, NEC.
48 Harrisson archive, file report 2257.

accurately predicted that it would not be reflected in the final result.49 A June Gallup poll showed the Liberals standing at fifteen per cent, but in the election a few weeks later the party received only nine per cent: they had been squeezed. Labour, it seems, benefited from its claim that to vote other than 'straight left' would keep the Conservatives in office. As one Liberal-inclined Labour voter confessed prior to the poll, 'I am at heart a Liberal, I never have been a true Tory. As things are I realise that the only chance to throw our weight in is on the side of Labour as this will be a definite fight between Tory and Labour.' Therefore, Labour won the conditional support of an unquantifiable number of tactical voters. The intention of this group was to limit the impact of what even most Labour politicians assumed would be a Conservative triumph. One M.O. respondent reported that a 'Liberal minded' Reigate business man of his acquaintance, 'told me he had voted Labour as "he knew they had no chance to get in, and thought it would be good for the Conservative to have a smaller majority" !' In another normally safe Conservative seat, however, one teacher's similar ambitions went somewhat awry: 'I voted Labour in Norwich with the intention to lessen the Tory majority. I wouldn't have minded Tories in at present with a much smaller majority, so that opposition could be effective. .. I think Labour needs political experience and may make a bit of a mess of finance.' After Labour had won the seat he confessed to feeling apprehensive. Others also seemed to regret their decision to vote Labour. One M.O. informant reported that

quite a few people who had voted Labour seemed definitely rather shocked by their success, even a little scared. I had the impression. ..that they had done so in a spirit of defiance against the old order of things, and were now rather wondering what was going to happen next."

In the weeks that followed, the general election was considered to have been a 'bad thing' by fifty-eight per cent of those polled.51 This was partly due to the feeling that, with the war in the Pacific unresolved, it had been improper to return so hastily to 'normal' politics. More fundamentally, this resentment was the result of the already noted widespread distaste for political partisanship. 'They're like a lot of old fish wives', one M.O. respondent noted of party leaders. Others were equally damning: politics was 'dishonourable'; the election campaign was 'dirty .. . I don't like this mud-slinging'. Politicians were mistrusted and felt to be 'all the same'.52 Despite Labour's best efforts many remained wedded to the idea of coalition because they doubted that the parties on their own would live up to their promises.

Hostility to blatant partisanship explains the response to Churchill's infamous first radio speech of the campaign in which he suggested that a Labour government would be forced to rely on 'some sort of Gestapo'. The

Harrisson archive, file report 2259. " Harrisson archive, file report 2270A. Harrisson archive, file report 2260. ''Mass-Obserualion Bullelin, I (March-April 1946), pp 9-10; Harrisson archive, file reports 2376, 2260-1.

632 STEVEN FIELDING Conservative leader was seen as reviving his party's pre-war smears.53 A number of candidates echoed their leader's rhetoric with approval, whilst central office grimly warned the public to 'Remember Belsen '.54 However, by completely miscalculating the public mood Churchill was, literally overnight, transformed from a national figurehead into a squalid party hack. Previously a man elevated above politics he henceforward appeared to be the dirtiest member of a filthy profession.55 Sixty-nine per cent of those asked by Gallup felt the Gestapo speech to have been 'bad'.56 Even the Times criticized the Conservative leader for 'emphasizing the narrow animosities of the party fight '.57 Despite their lack of enthusiasm for Labour, the public voted for the party in unprecedented numbers: it won 47.8 per cent of votes cast, or 36.1 per cent of the total electorate. This was an impressive, but by no means unprecedented achievement: since 1918 six parties have won an even greater share of the vote. Moreover, voting Labour did not indicate that the people had overcome their earlier doubts. The most cynical electors were under thirty years of age who were nevertheless more inclined towards Labour than any other This was clear evidence of the 'unfocused left vote': although the war had produced a dissatisfaction with the Conservatives it had not provided Labour with a large body of positive support. As early as 1943 Richard Acland had claimed that the party was merely the beneficiary of a 'negative enth~siasm'.~' Even in 1945, according to Roger Eatwell, Labour simply represented a 'rejecting consensus '.60 Perhaps this was why the 1945 general election campaign was observed by a 'dispirited electorate' considering its options under a 'cloak of apathy'.61 Compared with pre-war elections, far fewer windows displayed party colours whilst numbers at party meetings were by no means impre~sive.~'As the Liberal agent at Ilford suggested, many of those who went to hear candidates speak might have done so less out of a concern for politics and more as 'a treat to go to an evening meeting after all these years'.63 Such was their disengagement from the democratic process that during the three week hiatus between polling and the declaration of the result most people didn't discuss politics at all.64 What politicians such as Morrison had taken to be a sober electorate quietly weighing up the alternatives was, it appears, more a question of voters glumly confronting Hobson's Choice.

53 Mark Abrams, 'The Labour vote in the general election', Pilot Papers, I, I (1946), 16-17.

54 Harrington and Young, 1945, pp. 164-5.

55 Harrisson archive, file report 2260; Pelling, ' 194.5 reconsidered', p. 400.

56 Harrisson archive, file report 2253.

57 Quoted in Pelling, '1945 reconsidered', pp. 410-1 I.

58 Harrisson archive, file reports 2261, 2257. 59 Acland, How it will be done, p. 181.

60 Eatwell, Labour governments, p. 44. Harrisson archive, file report 227oA.

62 Geoffrey Mander, 'The general election ', Contemporary Review, CLXVIII (Sept. 1g45), I 38; Alastair Forbes, 'The nation considers its verdict', Picture Post, 7 July 1945,

63 Harrington and Young, 1945, pp. 157-8. 64 Harrisson archive, file report 227oA.

Despite some uncertainty whether Labour was competent to govern on its own, there were few doubts in the minds of most electors that any post-war government would have to introduce extensive reforms. The war had produced a 'vague and nebulous' desire for a better Britain.65 In April 1943 fifty-seven per cent of those questioned expressed a desire to see 'great changes' after the end of the conflict; in July 1945 fifty-six per cent felt that 1,abour's election indicated a desire for 'sweeping changes'. The new Jerusalem envisaged by some could be shamelessly whimsical: the Labour

candidate for East Grinstead told the 1945 party conference

two years ago, when I was in Africa, we fell to talking one day about what we hoped to see in the post-war world, and the fellow who put the point best was the one who said that he wanted to settle down with his wife in a cottage, with the kiddies, and to enjoy chocolates and looking after the chickens.fifi

By no means all shared this cosy vision : support for very practical reforms was evident even prior to the Beveridge report's publication in December 1942. A Gallup poll conducted in April the previous year revealed that fifty-five per cent of those surveyed supported the idea of a state-run health service free at the point of delivery. The public had also anticipated Beveridge's proposals for

pension^.^' If the report only echoed many pre-existing popular concerns it did raise hopes that they might be taken seriously by government. The initially enthusiastic response of certain ministerial spokesmen encouraged such expectations. However, when the commons debated Beveridge in February 1943 the public's optimism was quickly transformed into deep cynicism. The mealy-mouthed attitude of Sir Kingsley Wood and Sir John Anderson 'brought a profound sense of disillusion' and convinced many that the government was 'not sincere in its aims for post-war social change'.68 A month after the debate forty-seven per cent of the public declared themselves unhappy with the government's response against twenty-nine per cent who were satisfied.

It can be said, with not much exaggeration, that the 1945 general election had been won two years before it took place. Whereas the Conservative- dominated coalition quibbled about the report's details a majority of Labour back-benchers had enthusiastically endorsed it and even taken the unprecedented step of forcing a division in protest at the government's hesitatiom6' If the Conservatives had previously won votes by wrapping themselves in the flag, after December 1942 Labour covered itself with the

65 Mass-Observation, 'Social security and parliament', Political Quarterly, xrv, 2 (1g43), 245.

Labour party annual conference report 194.5, p. 94.

67 Mass-Observation, 'Social security', p. 247.

68 Mass-Observation, 'Social security ', pp. 250-4.

" Henry Pelling, 'The impact of the war on the Labour party', in H. L. Smith (ed.), War and social change. British society in the second world war (Manchester, 1986), pp. I 35-6; Addison, 1945,pp. 2 16-25 ; Mass-Observation, 'Social security ', p. 250.
Approve     Disapprove
Coal mines     60     16
Railways     54     26
Land     5'     30
Bank of England     39     2 o

pages of the Beveridge report. Henceforward politicians were classified on the basis of their response to Beveridge. Labour's most popular proposals during its early period in office were those associated with social security and the national health service. In February 1946 seventy-one per cent approved of its plans for the former whilst in the same month two years later sixty-one per cent endorsed the party's scheme for the latter. In October 1948 when asked to name the government's most impressive achievement the two most popular remained the establishment of the health service and the increase in pensions. Many of the priorities given credence, if not actually established, during wartime were still seen to be important after 1945: Labour's role in furthering these objectives contributed to its own popularity.

In contrast to social security, the electorate did not appear to take much interest in Labour's nationalization proposals. However, this did not prevent a majority expressing support for them, as shown in Gallup polls summarized in Table I, taken between March 1944 and May 1945.

The general case for nationalization seems to have been widely -if passively -accepted. When asked by Gallup in December 1945, fifty-nine per cent said they approved of the government's plans to nationalize coal, transport, electricity 'and so on'. As even the Economist put it, state control of industry 'Once a maxim for revolutionaries only ... has now acquired an almost middle-class respectability '.70

The Conservatives tried to turn the general election into an explicitly ideological contest. As early as February 1945 the party chairman had warned against 'nationalization and encroaching bureaucracy', a theme Churchill was later infamously to elab~rate.~'It was the Conservative party, not Labour, that talked of 'socialism' as the key election issue.72 Yet, although the role of the state -either in the guise of planning or nationalization -was the keenest point of difference between the two parties the issue failed to arouse much public concern. Perhaps this was because Labour and Conservatives obscured even this point of dissension: the former declared that intervention would only be undertaken on the basis of 'efficiency' whilst the latter suggested that governmental aid would be applied if it appeared 'necessary '.73

70 Economist, 24 Mar. 1945, McCallum and Readman, 1945, p. I I.
72 Miliband, Parliamentary socialism, pp. 284-5.
7S McCallum and Readman, 1945,pp 53-7.

More importantly, state intervention was rarely popularly conceived as a distinct issue; it was widely considered a means rather than an ends. The fundamental test was: would nationalization hasten or impede the more general objectives of social security and social justice?74 Labour's careful defence of state control as necessary and efficient therefore met with approval. As Morrison warned the 1945 Labour party conference

In our electorial arguments it is no good saying that we are going to socialise electricity, fuel and power because it is in accordance with Labour Party principles so to do.. .you must spend substantial time in arguing the case for the socialisation of these industries on the merits of their specific cases. This is how the British mind works. It does not work in a vacuum or in abstract theorie~.'~

In a similar vein Arthur Greenwood had earlier assured first-time voters that Labour proposed 'to face the future with bold minds, but with a sane outlook '.76

The Conservatives did themselves few favours by turning the campaign into a question of fundamental principles because the public was, if anything, hostile to their notion of 'free enterprise'. Undiluted market forces were thought to have led to interwar mass unemployment, a spectre which cast a long shadow over the whole campaign, especially as many assumed that the post-war economy would quickly return to its earlier torpor.77 In this context, it was more than unfortunate for the Conservatives that in the midst of the campaign a Manchester cinema displayed a message imploring 'Give Mr Churchill Your Support' during a programme that contained the film version of 'Love on the D~le'.~'

The issues considered by voters to be the most important were those that bore directly upon their everyday lives: they were immediate and practical. Perhaps surprisingly foreign policy never generated much interest : the identity of the 'guilty men' was never much of an issue.79 In the wake of intensive German bombing, housing was, by a very long way, the dominant popular concern until early 19~7." This was also another problem Labour was thought to possess a greater willingness to solve. In June 1945 forty-two per cent of those questioned felt the party best qualified to overcome the housing crisis as opposed to twenty per cent who believed in the Conservatives. Significantly, housing was one of the issues least discussed by politicians during the I 945 campaign : it was also the Labour government's most abject failure."

74 G.D. H. Cole, A history ofthe Labour party from 1914(London, 1948), pp. 465-6.

75 Labour party annual conference report 194.5, p. go.

76 Picture Post, 6 Jan, 1945.

77 McCallurn and Readrnan, 1945,p. 44; Mass-Observation, Journey Home, p. 43.

78 Daily Herald, 2 July 1945.

79 McCallum and Readrnan, 1945,pp, 49-50.

Harrisson archive, file report 2282.

David Howell, British social democracy (London, 1976)) p. 130.

The most impressive feature of voting patterns was the extent to which they remained stuck into pre-war grooves.82 Some interwar Conservative voters were so loyal to their party that they gave credence to Churchill's most absurd scares. Housewife Nella Last declared : 'heaven save any Nosey Parkers who intruded into my domestic life with any Gestapo methods.'83 Others were afraid that after a Labour victory their savings would be c~nfiscated.~~

In Scotland nationalism was an important issue during wartime by-elections whilst sectarianism continued to influence party choice.85 It is certainly hard to deny Eatwell's suggestion that the most significant factor in Labour's victory was the party's increased share of the working class vote. For the first time the party had a virtual monopoly of the industrial regions, especially large towns and cities. Most famously Birmingham, that bastion of working class Conservatism, finally went Labour.86 Forty-three per cent of Labour supporters stated they voted for the party because it best represented working class interesk8'

For contemporaries, however, the most remarkable feature of the election was the extent to which Labour made inroads into the middle class vote, most conspicuously in London's suburbia.88 According to John Bonham about twenty-two per cent of the middle class voted Lab~ur.~' As G. D. H. Cole pointed out Labour did well only in certain parts of the suburbs, those he described as 'working-class-cum-black-coat areas', such as North Croydon and Dagenham rather than solidly bourgeois constituencies like Hornsey and Churchill's own Woodford. Moreover, outside the capital, apart from the special case of Great Yarmouth, spa towns and coastal resorts also eluded the party.'' This was primarily a white collared, lower middle class vote: menial office workers, small business owners, managers and lower professional^.^^

The key to Labour's lower middle class support appears to have been the Beveridge report. The promise of the welfare state appealed to this group as much, if not more, than those lower down the social scale.92 Although accuracy is a vain hope, the lower middle class would have comprised most of B.I.P.O.'s occupational group B, forty-eight per cent of whom felt in a 1943 survey that they would gain if the report was implemented. Whereas eighty- eight per cent of the predominantly working class group C favoured a free health service, ninety per cent in B approved of it. The same proportions in both categories felt that government should implement the report. Fur

s' Howell, Social democracy, pp. 131-2. s3 Last, Nella Last's war, p. 288.

s4 Harrisson archive, file report 2270A.

s5 Christopher Harvie, 'Labour in Scotland during the second world war', Historical Journal, XXVI,4 (1g83), 934-7; Tom Gallagher, Glasgow: the uneasy peace: religious tension in modern Scotland (Manchester, 1987), p. 255. s6 Eatwell, Labour governments, pp, 37-8, 42-3. " Harrisson archive, file report 2265. Cole, 1945,p. 8. John Bonham, The middle class vote (London, 1g54), derived from tables 10 and I I, pp. 129-30. Cole, Labour party, pp. 435-6.

O1 Bonham, Middle class, derived from table 10, p. 129.

92 Bonham, Middle class, pp. 69, 182.

637 thermore, while sixty-three per cent in B wanted government to nationalize all life insurance companies, only fifty-five per cent in C were so in~lined.'~ Too much has probably been made of the scale by which the middle class fell to Labour: even among sections of the middle classes where Labour did best, more than twice as many still voted Conservative. Perhaps the most significant increase in middle class influence was found not in the constituencies


but in the party's parliamentary leadership. However, although in simple numbers the middle class made only a marginal contribution to the total Labour vote, it gave the party the edge over the Conservatives in a host of Metroland constituencies. Similarly, whilst the defection of middle class voters in 1950 and 1951 made little impact on the size of Labour's vote -which actually increased -it managed to deny the party vital suburban seats.

The key group for Labour was the young of whichever class: the swing from Conservative to Labour amongst those old enough to vote in 1935 was slight.

M.O. estimated that sixty-six per cent of those under thirty-five voted Labour in East Fulham, as opposed to fifty per cent of those over thirty-five.94 This latter age group had most to gain from Beveridge; they had also borne the main burden of winning the war; they also held the most extreme hopes and fears -for the post-war world. For some middle class first time voters, Labour seemed to have been the fashionable political choice -in spite of certain social reservations. One female student 'said that she was voting Labour, and so were all her friends, because it was the only progressive party that stood a chance of getting in, but she hated the Labour party, they were so uncouth and didn't know how to behave'.95 Although not by any stretch of the imagination representative, this comment suggests that Labour's hold on even some young voters was tenuous.


For Labour party activists July 1945 was a moment of triumph which vindicated over fifty years of struggle. It was a time to look back in wonder. After the party's newly-elected M.P.s left their first meeting one was heard asking 'What would Keir Hardie think of this?', another speculated 'What would William Morris say?'96 It is unlikely that many Labour voters were touched by such emotions. Doubtful that any politician was worthy of their trust, the electorate turned to Labour as part of a reaction against the Conservatives. As the party's general secretary conceded, 'There was a tidal wave of popular distrust which submerged the Tories.'" Idealism on a mass scale was prominent by its absence. If Labour won on just one issue it was that raised by Arthur Greenwood in the house of commons the day before the publication of the Beveridge report. 'There are', he said, 'two words graven

93 British Institute of Public Opinion, The Beueridge report and the public (London, 1g43), pp.

13-14. 84 Harrisson archive, file report 2282.

95 Harrisson archive, file report 227oA. 96 Daily Herald, 30 July 1945.

'' 'Party development', paper presented to the campaign sub-committee, 26 Oct. 1945,NEC.

on the hearts of the overwhelming mass of men and women, "Never again "... never again will they submit to the social and economic evils of the past. ' Despite the absence of firm promises and minimal coverage of domestic reform, the party printed this speech in pamphlet form with a cover consisting of newspaper cuttings announcing unemployment figures.98 This negative emphasis exploited the public mood which, by the war's end, was dominated by the idea that the future would merely repeat the bitter failures of the past: depression would be followed by war." In this sense it could be argued that Labour was the party of the pessimists: it was the fear of the dark satanic mill rather than the hope of a new Jerusalem which cast a shadow over the ballot box.

The Labour vote in 1945 was socially more disparate than it had previously been. The party's predominantly working class support was supplemented by an enhanced middle class element, a social coalition united by a shared adherence to the promise of security contained within the Beveridge report. Progressives gave this common self-interest a spurious moral grandeur by describing Labour voters as 'the people', Labour was not slow to take up this point: a 1944 pamphlet claimed that 'Labour Politics are the People's Politics' and 'In a very real sense, the Labour Party is the Party of the people'.lo0 'The people' was a specifically wartime idea, although it had obvious roots in nineteenth century popular radicalism. Priestley declared that 'We are all the people, so long as we are willing to consider ourselves the people'. 'The people' were those who 'mucked in' whatever their background: the war had seemingly made class differences irrelevant -a German bomb did not differentiate between social groups.101 Those on the right were less convinced, as Colm Brogan complained 'The notion of The People. ..is deplorably vague'.''' Both semantically and socially 'the people' was an ambiguous construct, but necessarily so if Labour was to win power. It was the linguistic counterpart of the Beveridge report, something which bridged the gap between the working and lower middle classes. Before the war the Conservatives had successfully kept Labour out of the suburbs by presenting it as a party which threatened both the interests of the nation as a whole and the hard-earned savings of the middle class in particular. Labour's support for Beveridge committed it to providing each and every individual with an economically secure future whilst allowing the party also to employ the language of patriotism against opponents.103 According to Williams, Labour had become a classless party, 'a coming together of men and women of goodwill among all classes': in 1945 Labour, not the Conservatives,

" Arthur Greenwood, 'Never again' (London, 1943)~ p. 4.

'' H. D. Willcock, 'Twenty-five year cycle', New Statesman, 7 July 194.5.

loo Labour party, 'Build your own future. A citizen's guide to effective politics' (London, 7944)s PP. 2-3. lo' Priestley, Out of the people, pp. 13-1 7. lo2 Colm Brogan, Who are the people? (London, 1g43), p. 3. lo3 Tom Jeffrey 'The suburban nation. Politics and class in Lewisham ', in David Feldman and

Gareth Stedman Jones (eds.) Metropolir. London. Histories and representations since 1800 (London, 79891, pp. 205-8.

represented the nation.lo4 However, once the Labour government had done its job and established the welfare state, maintained full employment and improved standards of living 'the people' lost its cohesion. This was especially so after the Conservatives had accepted the broad parameters of Beveridgian social policy: the anti-Conservative impulse was less urgent.

Labour's victory was, more than anything else, a consequence of the peculiar nature of the British electoral system. During the twentieth century this has, with few exceptions, delivered commanding majorities in the commons to parties whose share of the popular vote was, in contrast, far from impressive.105 Despite this, historians still tend to see a reflection of the popular mood in the number of constituencies won by the competing parties. In 194.5 Labour won just over one-third of the votes of those eligible to exercise the franchise. Yet, the impression is that the party was swept to power on a tidal wave of left-wing fervour. Perhaps more damning to this dramatic, if spurious, view is the strong impression that many first-time Labour voters gave the party their support despite multifarious misgivings. Simply put, an as yet unspecified number of Labour voters did not want the return of a Conservative government -at least with its 1935 majority intact -because of the party's hostility to the Beveridge report. In such a context -with the Liberals, Common Wealth and Communists not serious contenders for power -Labour was the only possible choice. In many ways, therefore, 1945 was by no means untypical of other general elections which also forced an unconvinced public to decide between two parties. As a consequence, instead of popular partisanship and expectant idealism the election, like others before and since, generated widespread disengagement and pre-emptive cynicism. Perhaps the 1945 contest was unusual only in that the victorious party actually lived up to promises made during the campaign. For this, Labour was rewarded with an ,increased share of the popular vote in I 95 I, yet denied a further term in office by the very electoral system that had granted it power six years earlier.

lo4 Williams, F$? years march, pp. 358-9.

'05 For a contemporary demand for the abolition of the first-past-the-post system in favour of some form of proportional representation see R. W. G. MacKay, Coupon orfree? Being a study of ele~toral rejorm and representatiue government (1943). Interestingly, the author, at the time of publication a leading member of Common Wealth, became a Labour M.P. in 1945.

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