In 1945 the Labour party finally came of age. Before 1914 it had failed to establish itself as the main alternative opposition and after 1918 it had yet to prove itself capable of becoming a majority government. This chapter looks at the reason for Labour's sudden electoral success. It also deals with the economic and social changes introduced between 1945 and 1951, focusing on the key questions of how radical these really were and whether or not they can be regarded as an overall success.
The British people were invited to cast their votes in the last year of both the First World War and the Second World War. There, however, the similarity ended. In 1918 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, kept much of the wartime coalition together and rode to victory over the Labour party and others who were no longer willing to co-operate with his government. In 1945 the reverse happened. Churchill's wartime coalition broke up in May and British politics reverted to a strongly partisan course. In the election held in the autumn of 1945, Labour won 393 seats against the Conservatives' 213 and the Liberals' 12 (see Figure 9). This was the first time that Labour had ever achieved an overall majority in Parliament and came as a major surprise, not least to the Conservatives, who had been banking on a vote of confidence in Churchill's leadership.
Labour's victory has been attributed to a variety of factors. One is that the British electorate had been radicalised as a result of the experience of war, which had acted as a catalyst for increasing expectations about social reform (see Chapter 11). A popular view had been emerging since 1943 that Churchill was not fully committed to introducing the changes already agreed in outline by the coalition government. He had