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Did the Conservatives Loose or Labour Win the 1945 General Election

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Did the Conservatives Loose or Labour Win the 1945 General Election?
The 1945 election came quickly after the aftermath of World War Two and few knew how the election was going to turn out with party politics being pushed into the background during the six years of total war that Britain and her people experienced. This came to a surprise when Churchill’s war government was pushed out in favour of Labour instead and there is much debate surrounding this issue as to who lost and who won this election, or an evolution in voter attitudes?
The most important factor in determining whether Labour won or the Conservatives lost was the change in voter attitudes that resulted from six years of total war. During the war, a definitive leftward shift had occurred in the electorate and this steady change can be seen through the work Labour had done in the War Coalition on the Home Front in extending state control where people now viewed Labour’s seemingly ‘radical’ policies as beneficial in helping those in poverty and need. This can be linked to the experiences of the middle classes during evacuation where the level of deprivation in urban areas was exposed and now it only can be seen as natural that the middle classes wanted these issues to be dealt with. As well as on the Home Front, the views of socialism had changed due to the help that Stalin’s Russia had in defeating the Germans and thus was seen in good light. So this trend to the left changed the attitude of many to Labour and can be seen to have increased votes, but this cannot be pinned to whether the Conservatives lost or Labour won because without an effective line of policy or campaign, this shift in view can’t be capitalised on by either party. On top of this reasoning, many people naturally remain with what they already know and without other factors either compensating a Conservative loss or Labour win, the outcome of the election may well have been considerably different.
The second most important issue in determining whether the Conservatives lost or Labour won is the legacy of the past that pervaded both parties into the post-war era, specifically the Conservative Party. The 1920’s and 30’s was a period where the Conservative Party dominated politics but with hindsight, many people associated this time with unemployment, social deprivation, economic woes and the failure of appeasement and as such the Conservative Party were blamed for this period of struggle, linking closely with the shift in voter attitudes that had occurred during this time. Many people still saw the evils of the ‘devil’s decade’ and the revulsion of this time so steered away from any association with the Conservatives, Harold Macmillan described “it was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain.” For the Labour party, this time during the 20’s and 30’s were not associated with them, they were a young party that would naturally make mistakes and during those times it was more about gaining a hold on the electorate than strict policy making. So, as there was no other feasible party, Labour gained the majority of support from those weary of the Conservative’s track record and thus can be viewed as a definite Labour win.
The election campaign itself is another important reason in judging this election as a Labour win or Conservative loss. For the Conservatives, ‘Mr Churchill’s Declaration to the Voters’ sought to almost ‘cash-in’ on the popular euphoria of victory over Europe and as they had played a leading role in the outcome of the war, they became complacent that they were bound to win and because of this they spent less on their campaign in addition to a run-down organisation. But, this campaign focused too much on Churchill’s dominant personality and aggressive attacks to the opposition which ultimately failed. However, Labour’s campaign ‘Let Us Face the Future’ can be seen as much more inspiring than the Conservatives’, stressing the positive value for far-reaching reforms and the need for a domestic post-war reconstruction. In contrast to the Conservatives, Labour had bigger constituencies and a very efficient electoral organisation too, which gave the edge to attract more of the population. Also in this, the Labour campaign seemed much more in line with the views of the general public, as Adelman describes “people want to talk about redundancy, housing, pensions, and what will happen to ex-servicemen after the war” and the idea of domestic reform appealed very much to what people wanted and shows links with the change in voter attitudes that occurred during this time and the legacy of the past harking back to Lloyd George’s ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ which was sure to be fresh in the minds of many and not very successful for the Conservatives. Shifting back to the Conservatives, they did not exploit or see this need for domestic reform so consequently lost support and the people distinguished “Churchill as wartime leader they admired and Churchill as peacetime leader they distrusted.” As a result, the way both parties fought the campaign so differently revealed the deep change of faith in the Conservatives and consequent rise of trust in the Labour Party, so this can be seen as an area of the election Labour won.
Closely linked with the election campaign was the manifesto and policy that can be seen as another important piece in determining a win or lose situation. The Conservatives manifesto fared the same treatment of their election campaign which lead to a vague and uncertain policy, with continuity a big factor and a stress to keep the international situation calm, but people wanted change in their own country and the Conservatives seemed not to show this. On the other hand, Labour’s manifesto was very much in tune to the change that people wanted to see: nationalisation of industry and full scale social reforms. These ideas “no longer seemed wild or dangerous” as people had adjusted to living with higher State control and as it lead to full employment and better social provisions, people wanted this during peacetime, thus Labour won their votes. Also, as these ideas were at the root and core of Labour’s traditions, this would ensure the correct direction and implementation, further adding to the Voters confidence in Labour. A huge deciding direction of votes was the issues surrounding the Beveridge Report that appeared before the election in 1942. This devised ideas such as eliminating poverty and devising a scheme of social insurance, which eventually became the policy of Labour itself as they fully recognised the need for this to be discussed in parliament in 1942 a took a hold its notions. On the other hand, the Conservatives merely saw this Report as a distraction instead of winning the war, but this damaged their chances of winning votes as this report was in tune with what people wanted and consequently saw the Conservatives as not taking this seriously, but Labour the most likely “to build a ‘Better Britain’ after the war.” In the context of winning votes, Labour pushed to achieve this, while the Conservatives really did not ‘try’ sufficiently, so Labour indefinitely won.
Again closely linked with the election campaign were the Smear campaigns and personalities that affected the distribution of votes and the outcome of a win or loss. For the Conservatives, attack was the main idea in discrediting the Labour Party. Churchill’s Gestapo Speech is an example of this by linking Labour with Socialism and the implementation of a Police State: “Socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State”, however many thought this as offensive to Labour especially with recent changes of attitude towards the party and also very controversial with the connotations of Nazi ideas just months after war. This plan therefore backfired for the Conservatives, losing out on votes. But this situation also gives an insight into the personalities of both leaders. Churchill seemed to dominate the Conservatives campaign and was very aggressive in his stance, which people did not seem to like as such, but with Attlee this was different. He calmly acted in the face of such animosity towards Labour and in the campaign as a whole seemed to be in tune with the wants and needs of the people, giving him the more respectable and sensible outlook and people seemed to gravitate towards this. As for the Labour Party’s smear campaigns, they emphasised on the bad memories of the 20’s and 30’s that the Conservatives were linked to and “the need to ensure that they never occurred again.” This undoubtedly reveals a Conservative loss, pushing away the opportunity to gain votes with a great error.
In conclusion, it was the Labour Party who won the 1945 election not only due to the efforts it made in its election campaign and manifesto to gain the most amount of votes, but also to Attlee himself for being in tune with what the people really cared for. But, in essence were it not for the change in voter attitudes during the war the outcome of the election may well have been different, as Adelman quotes it was ‘the conversion of the opinion-formers to collectivism and Keynesianism which dominated British politics for a quarter of a century after the end of the war” which really lead to Labour’s victory.

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