The 1950 and 1951 General Elections in Britain: Robert Pearce Asks Why Labour's Period in Office under Clement Attlee Came to an End

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The results of the 1945 general election exceeded the hopes of the most fervent Labour supporter. Never before had the party achieved an overall majority in the House of Commons, and yet now Labour had a huge parliamentary majority of 146 seats. 'I think we've got 20 years of power ahead of us,' mused the newly-elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Most political pundits assumed that, starting from such a base, Labour would inevitably secure at least a reasonable majority in five years' time, and hence the party seemed assured of at least ten years in office. And yet in 1950 Labour scraped home with a majority of five seats, and the following year the Conservatives won by 17. The upshot was that Labour was out of office until 1964.

What had caused this remarkable transformation? Whereas the 1945 general election has been a source of endless debate among historians, so that we now have a very good understanding of Labour's accession to power, the subsequent general elections have been strangely neglected. Hence the reasons for Labour's fall from power have not been clearly established. Was Labour's performance in office such that it simply did not merit the electorate's endorsement? Or were there special circumstances that explain the fall? Did the election campaigns matter, or were longer-term factors paramount? Perhaps it was more a case of the Conservatives winning, rather than Labour losing? ... Just how do we explain Labour's defeat?

The Starting Point

First, we should make a virtue of what we do understand--the nature of Labour's victory in 1945. Did the reasons for Labour's great victory have any relevance in 1950 and 1951?

The causes of the '45 victory can be simply summarised:

* Labour was more in tune than the Conservatives with public opinion, especially with the wartime ethos of equality and 'fair shares' and with hopes for a new welfare state. Hence its manifesto promises had wide appeal.

* Labour had a better front bench team than the Conservatives, appearing both more talented and more trustworthy.

* In the improvised campaign of 1945 Labour's electoral machinery, was no longer inferior to that of its rival.

* The British 'first past the post' system gave Labour a huge majority of seats (just over 61 per cent) even though they won less than half of the popular vote.

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Labour's Achievements

Undoubtedly Labour had promised more than the Conservatives at the 1945 election. Yet such promises, while resulting in temporary popularity at the polls, might turn out to be hostages to fortune. Such had been the case with the Lloyd George Coalition, elected at the end of the First World War. Yet Labour exhibited a steely determination to make Britain a better place in which to live, and the 1945-50 administration goes down in history as the government that fulfilled more of its promises than any other.

In total, the 1945 parliament passed no fewer than 347 acts of parliament. Clearly there is no opportunity here to focus on details, but we do need to be aware of broad contours. On the home front, the Beveridge report was implemented, with the National Insurance Act of 1946 and the National Assistance Act of 1948. Furthermore, Labour inaugurated the National Health Service in 1948 (generally seen as one of the most valuable reforms in the whole of British history), built over a million new houses, and raised the school leaving age to 15. Labour also fulfilled its promise to nationalise key areas of British industry, including the coal mines, the railways, gas and electricity. Externally, Labour granted independence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma, pulled out of Palestine, and helped set up an important new security pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Inevitably the 1950 general election revolved around Labour's record in office. Had they done enough to earn re-election? …