The story of the astonishing 1945 election and Labour's landside election
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Delving into the past with Chris Hallam
In 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated, Britain experienced its first General Election in ten years.
To many, the outcome seemed like a foregone conclusion. As leader of the wartime coalition since 1940, Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had played an invaluable role in ensuring the Allied victory. Surely he and his Conservative Party would now be rewarded for this at the ballot box?
Certainly, Churchill himself seemed confident. As he and his Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden flew home from the Potsdam Conference to find out the results, both the new US President Harry S. Truman and the Soviet leader, Stalin, assumed both men would be returning to finish the conference soon.
But as soon as the election results started pouring in over the radio, it became clear something astonishing had happened.
The electorate had voted decisively to reject Churchill and the Tories in favour of Clement Attlee and Labour. The Labour Party had never even won a majority before.
Now they had won a landslide majority of 146.
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The Liberals, who some had also thought might make a comeback were also routed. They would remain in third place for decades to come.
What had happened? To many it seemed as if voters had learned from the mistakes of the past.
Following the First World War, war leader, David Lloyd George had been rewarded with a landslide election win soon after the 1918 Armistice.
But, in practice, it was soon clear he was unable to deliver the 'land fit for heroes to live in' which he had promised.
To many, Churchill, while widely admired for his wartime heroism seemed similarly ill-equipped to lead Britain into the post-war world.
Britons were determined not to squander the freedoms they had fought so hard for again.
There were determined not to see a return to the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s.
Labour’s leader, Clement Attlee was not an exciting man.
Churchill described him as 'a sheep in sheep’s clothing'. But the 1945 Labour manifesto entitled ‘Let Us Face The Future Together’ was an exciting and radical document.
Labour had fully endorsed the wartime Beveridge Report which had proposed a post-war welfare state.
Labour promised and did in fact deliver full employment, a massive house-building programme and would nationalise a third of British industry.
Most exciting of all, there would be a new National Health Service ready and able to provide free universal health care for all 'from the cradle to the grave'.
The Tories had backed away from such bold promises. They would vote against them in parliament but in practice proved wary of reversing such popular measures when they eventually returned to power in the 1950s.
Churchill had also been badly damaged by a speech in which he suggested Labour would introduce some form of secret police, like the Nazi Gestapo were they to win power.
Many were disappointed to see Churchill resorting to such tactics.
Churchill was smearing men, after all, who had until very recently loyally served alongside him in the wartime coalition government.
The ‘Gestapo speech’ only served to make Churchill seem less like the nation’s wartime saviour and more like an everyday grubby, party political leader.
It was known as the ‘Khaki Election.’ Many of those voting were still stationed in the Pacific engaged in the ongoing war with Japan.
Some young candidates such as Labour’s Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey campaigned in uniform.
Many of the new intake such as Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, George Brown and Harold Wilson would go on to play a vital role in Britain’s post-war world.
One small incident in the new parliament graphically illustrated how times had changed.
On Churchill’s arrival in the chamber, Tory MPs broke into a round of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” to greet their defeated leader.
But Labour countered this by breaking into a rousing rendition of ‘The Red Flag.”
With twice as many Labour MPs as there were now Tories, the chorus of singing from the now dramatically boosted Labour ranks soon completely drowned the other song out.