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Labour party won the 1945 general election because of the conservatives mistakes

Print this page Politics in peacetime Between 1940 and 1945 Winston Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time. In May 1945 his approval rating in the opinion polls, which had never fallen below 78 per cent, stood at 83 per cent.

With few exceptions, politicians and commentators confidently predicted that he would lead the Conservatives to victory at the forthcoming general election. In the event, he led them to one of their greatest ever defeats. It was also one for which he was partly responsible, because the very qualities that had made him a great leader in war were ill-suited to domestic politics in peacetime.

Politicians are often rejected by voters because they have failed in office.

But one of the reasons why Churchill lost the general election in 1945 was because he had succeeded in completing the almost superhuman task he had taken on in 1940, and in a way this made him redundant. His first act as prime minister in 1940 was to invite the leaders of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties - Attlee, Sinclair and Chamberlain - to serve in a Coalition Government. This became the administration, robustly surviving external shocks and internal quarrels, that mobilised the British for total war, and it is hard to imagine anyone who could have played the role of national leader with greater success than Churchill did at that time.

The conduct of the war, however, was his overriding passion, and military victory was by far the most important of his goals - thus everything else, including party politics, was secondary. As a result, when the war came to an end and party politics resumed, Churchill suddenly found himself without a clear sense of purpose or direction.

He thought of the party much as a knight in medieval times thought of his horse, as a mount on which to go into battle. Never was a party so leaderless as the Conservative Party is today.

This single-mindedness could, of course, be seen as a great asset in a period of national emergency, but there is no doubt that Churchill neglected Conservative interests during the war years. Meanwhile the Labour Party and its allies in the media ran an effective propaganda war on the home front. They vilified members of the pre-war Conservative party as having been appeasers of Hitler, and of having been responsible for the failure to re-arm Britain.

And they painted the 1930s in dismal colours as an era of poverty and mass unemployment. At the same time, they held out the prospect of a new social order that would ensure better housing, free medical services and employment for all.

The author of this, Sir William Beveridge, was an ambitious man, whose report went far beyond the terms of reference he had been given by the government. He produced what amounted to a comprehensive manifesto of social reform, including social security, a National Health Service, a full employment policy and other advances. In his early years as a politician Churchill had been a Liberal and a social reformer. The report achieved instant fame and approval, and the political agenda was transformed.

Why did the Conservatives lose the 1945 election?

Henceforth until the end of the war, British politics were dominated by questions of social reform. Though Labour ministers were constrained by the need to maintain the unity of the wartime coalition, Labour politicians - and sympathisers outside the government - campaigned vociferously for the adoption of the Beveridge Report. This was in opposition to the Conservatives, who were accused with some justice of delaying and obstructing it.

He had worked with the young Beveridge in introducing labour exchanges, and the Beveridge Report itself could be construed as an extension of reforms that Churchill himself had introduced between 1908 and 1911. The Beveridge Report, therefore, presented the Prime Minister with a golden opportunity to reinvent himself as the leader of a party seriously concerned with social questions. What was more, acceptance of the report was not the only option - the party could have decided to devise and publicise an alternative prospectus.

Churchill, however, completely missed the opportunity. Absorbed in the conduct of the war he was resentful of what he thought of as distractions, and especially of the raising of issues likely to cause disputes within the coalition.

Besides, his radical days were far behind him, and he spoke of Beveridge in private as 'a windbag and a dreamer'. He therefore ruled that while preparations for social reform could be made in wartime, decisions must await the outcome of the first post-war general election. The outcome was that the coalition government issued a series of White Papers on post-war policy, but put through very little legislation. Top Public opinion It seems likely that the result of the 1945 general election could have been predicted long in advance.

During the opening months of World War Two the opinion polls showed a Conservative lead. But when polling was resumed in June 1943, Labour were ahead of the Conservatives by 10 per cent.

  • Churchill, however, decided that scare tactics would be more effective;
  • The result plunged him into depression...

By February 1945, the Labour lead was 18 per cent. Opinion polls, however, were a novelty which had yet to prove their value, and it was generally believed that Churchill the war hero would be unbeatable - as David Lloyd George had been in 1918, following his leadership of the country through World War One.

Why Churchill Lost in 1945

World War Two in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. On 23 May the parliamentary wartime coalition broke up, and Churchill returned at the head of a predominantly Conservative 'caretaker' government for the duration of the election campaign.

Polling took place on 5 July, but in order to allow time for the ballot boxes to be collected from servicemen overseas - by RAF Transport Command - the count did not begin until 25 July. The Conservative campaign was built around the personality of Churchill, on whom there fell almost the entire responsibility of presenting the Conservative case.

Here was a last opportunity to get across the message that the prime minister was not only a warlord, but also a constructive peacetime statesman. Top Campaigning It was all the more important that he should do this, since the Labour Party was fighting a strong campaign, hammering home its policies on the nationalisation of industry, full employment, social security and the issue which, according to the opinion polls, was most important in the minds of voters - housing.

Churchill, however, decided that scare tactics would be more effective. I've tried them with pep and I've tried them with pap. In the opening broadcast of the campaign, on 4 June, he warned that the introduction of Socialism into Britain would require '. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that it cost Churchill many votes, still less that it cost him the election.

In a second broadcast he emphasised improvements in health and nutrition, and extolled the coalition government's plans for social insurance. But after this he reverted to negative tactics by exploiting the 'Laski affair'. In a statesmanlike gesture, Churchill had invited Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, to accompany him to the Potsdam Conference held to discuss international policy following the defeat of Germanywhich was taking place at the same time as the British election campaign.

He did this to ensure continuity in the event of a change of government half way through the conference. But the chairman of the Labour party's National Executive, Harold Laski, put out a statement declaring that Attlee's presence at Potsdam could not bind the party to any decisions reached there. Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook - the newspaper owner and one-time minister in Churchill's cabinet - played on this embarassing rift for all it was worth, with allegations that the Labour Party was run by a sinister body, the National Executive, which claimed the right to dictate to Parliament.

Dropping the ball

Churchill, however, sensed that he was out of his depth. At one point during the campaign he gave Attlee a lift in his car and, speaking of his electoral tactics, confessed: The repeated emphasis he gave to the need to finish the war against Japan suggested once more that war was his only real interest.

The East End of London was flooded with rumours that he was planning a war against Russia. The result plunged him into depression. After polling on 5 July, Churchill and Attlee returned to Potsdam while the service vote was collected. On 25 July they returned home to await the results, which began to come in the following morning.

By the afternoon it was apparent that Labour had won by a landslide - with 393 seats and an overall majority of 183 in the House of Commons. The notion that the Conservatives were defeated by 'the forces vote' is mistaken - as the opinion polls showed, the civilian vote was strongly pro-Labour - but war weariness was probably a factor against Churchill among civilians and servicemen alike.

  • Here was a last opportunity to get across the message that the prime minister was not only a warlord, but also a constructive peacetime statesman;
  • In the event, he led them to one of their greatest ever defeats;
  • Meanwhile the Labour Party and its allies in the media ran an effective propaganda war on the home front;
  • Churchill, however, completely missed the opportunity;
  • Clement Attlee and a recently-defeated Churchill;
  • Far from not thinking ahead, as some have suspected, the Conservatives had clearly spent much time pondering the future.

The result plunged him into depression and his party into shock, but it was not quite as bad as it seemed. The first-past-the-post system gave an exaggerated picture of Labour's triumph, disguising the fact that just over half the electorate had voted against them.

  1. There would be shortages and social misery.
  2. The East End of London was flooded with rumours that he was planning a war against Russia. The conduct of the war, however, was his overriding passion, and military victory was by far the most important of his goals - thus everything else, including party politics, was secondary.
  3. Polling took place on 5 July, but in order to allow time for the ballot boxes to be collected from servicemen overseas - by RAF Transport Command - the count did not begin until 25 July.
  4. At one point during the campaign he gave Attlee a lift in his car and, speaking of his electoral tactics, confessed. The conduct of the war, however, was his overriding passion, and military victory was by far the most important of his goals - thus everything else, including party politics, was secondary.

Churchill soon recovered his spirits. He reinvented himself as a global statesman, doggedly retained the leadership of the Conservative Party, and confidently awaited what he saw as the inevitable reaction against Socialism. He had, in fact, performed one great service for Conservatism.

  • Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook - the newspaper owner and one-time minister in Churchill's cabinet - played on this embarassing rift for all it was worth, with allegations that the Labour Party was run by a sinister body, the National Executive, which claimed the right to dictate to Parliament;
  • He lost again, but was given one more opportunity in 1951, when he finally took a majority of seats — though the Conservatives still won fewer votes than Labour;
  • Print this page Politics in peacetime Between 1940 and 1945 Winston Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time;
  • The costs of maintaining armed forces large enough to do this would be enormous.

After the failure of appeasement and the disrepute into which the pre-war leaders of the Conservative party had fallen, he had restored the party's patriotic credentials and saved it from the possibility of a defeat far worse than it in fact suffered in 1945.

Find out more Books The Road to 1945: His most recent book is Churchill the Unexpected Hero Oxford University Press, 2005and he is currently editing, with Jeremy Crang, a volume on the bombing of Dresden.