It occurs to me that while @Makemakean is right to point out that the Liberals' former seats don't resemble the Lib Dems' current seats at all, looking at 1935 really shows the level of Labour realignment last year as well. I know it's a talking point that gets brought up a lot, but it's very striking on the map.
The events of the 1935-45 Parliament are far too numerous to account for, and many of them are so famous that every schoolchild knows them – particularly so because the Parliament sat through nearly the entire Second World War. The years of privation, horror and death as the UK and its allies faced down the threat of Nazi Germany changed the country inside and out, as nearly half a million people died and millions lost their homes. In the end, the Allies were victorious, but at enormous cost – it remains the deadliest conflict in human history.
The needs of war had brought Labour into Government. They held about a third of the posts in Government, roughly proportionate to their seat share in the House of Commons, but Winston Churchill only really cared about the war effort, so most domestic issues came to be delegated to the Lord President’s Committee, chaired by Labour leader Clement Attlee. In recognition of his key role in the administration, Attlee was made Deputy Prime Minister in 1942 – the first time that title had ever been used. Though not a charismatic man, he was recognised as an effective administrator and Cabinet minister by his peers in both major parties.
By 1944, the defeat of the Nazis was generally held to be inevitable, and discussions began on how best to shape the world after victory. One of Labour’s key objectives in Government was to create a plan for post-war economic development, and to this end it had appointed a commission in 1941 to write a report on social insurance. The resulting Beveridge Report, which took its name from the chairman of the commission, recommended sweeping changes to economic and social policy with the goal of eliminating the “five evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”. Although Beveridge was a Liberal, and all parties claimed to support the Report on its release, it became strongly identified with Labour, and Attlee was only too happy to make this new thing called the “Welfare State” a key element of his party policy.
It was expected by everyone that an election would follow as soon as the war came to an end, but until then, the Government maintained unity for the sake of the war effort. General elections were, of course, suspended, and for by-elections there was a truce between the Government parties to nominate one candidate, usually from the same party as the departing MP, who would be endorsed by all of them. This policy of unity was generally not controversial, but in some by-elections there were minor-party candidates who opposed the Government candidate and did quite well. At the Grantham by-election in March 1942, Denis Kendall, a controversial local arms manufacturer who stood as an independent, narrowly beat the official Conservative candidate. Wallasey and Rugby were both won by ex-Labour independents the next month, all three by-elections being influenced by the recent fall of Singapore.
The most notable anti-Government force, though, was yet to arrive on the scene. Richard Acland, Liberal MP for Barnstaple, had been organising opposition to the all-party truce among the intellectual left. Acland was a Christian socialist by persuasion and a supporter of common land ownership, and he was joined by the writer J. B. Priestley and ex-Communist International Brigades veteran Tom Wintringham to form the Common Wealth Party in July 1942. The party, which Acland described as “not a Socialist party, but a party with Socialists in it”, supported public ownership and a moral renaissance in politics, but was otherwise deliberately vague. Composed of figures with wildly different politics, only the war really kept them together, and they embarked on a strategy of choosing strategic by-elections to make a show of opposition to the Government’s wartime conduct.
Just before the party was formally founded, a similarly-inclined candidacy carried Maldon, whose Conservative MP had died in May. The Government nominated another Conservative, who expected to be unopposed, but he had not reckoned with the entrance of Tom Driberg. Driberg, who was most famous as a society columnist in the Daily Express, was an idiosyncratic left-winger who had been in the Communist Party while at Oxford. He was also both a staunch Anglo-Catholic and an openly gay man who flaunted the social mores (and laws) of his time. Most crucially, he was the only candidate to live in the constituency, and this local connection secured him a landslide victory in the by-election.
Driberg would not join Common Wealth (indeed, he became the official Labour candidate for Maldon at the next general election), but further by-elections would secure them three gains by the war’s end. By then, their leading figures were falling out, and any hopes of becoming a major party were decisively ended when they could field no more than twenty-three candidates. The Communists stood twenty-one, and the ILP five.
It was Labour, then, who would secure the “change vote” as the 1945 general election campaign began. Their manifesto, titled Let Us Face the Future, borrowed heavily from the Beveridge Report, promising massive expansions to social services and nationalisation of a wide swath of the economy. The goal was full employment, and the elimination of the five evils identified by Beveridge. In the face of this, the Conservative campaign had very few concrete promises to make – their manifesto mainly seemed focused on convincing the voters they weren’t opposed to social reform at all, and Churchill made private comments about a Labour Government needing “some form of Gestapo” to carry out its reforms.
In general, the British public respected Churchill tremendously. Polls taken just after war’s end showed his approval rating at 83%, but Labour were ahead by 18% in voting intentions. Contemporaries blamed this on unreliable polling – it was still a new concept at the time – and took it as read that a man as popular as Winston Churchill would never lose the confidence of the nation he’d just saved from fascism. Churchill certainly believed so.
The election was held on 5 June, but the actual counting of the votes took until 26 July to allow servicemen stationed abroad to vote and have their votes counted. The electoral map had been redrawn for the first time since 1918, taking into account the population growth and movement of the past twenty-five years – however, the changes were extremely ad-hoc. Seats with more than 100,000 inhabitants were split, and the London suburbs were significantly rearranged, but rural constituencies were unchanged. One of the first tasks of any post-war Government would be to conduct a deeper review of the electoral process.
As things stood, however, the boundaries made little change to the result. The Labour landslide was a fact. 393 Labour MPs were elected, just over three-fifths of the new House, and the Conservatives were reduced to 197 seats with another 11 for the National Liberals (who were increasingly becoming an appendage of the Conservative Party). The Labour victory stretched beyond their traditional strongholds in working-class London and the coal mining regions, including large rural constituencies like Cambridgeshire and Stroud as well as nearly all of the West Midlands and half of the seats in Liverpool.
Less strikingly, though, it was perhaps the most two-party House since the previous war. The Liberals went down to twelve seats, with party leader Archibald Sinclair losing his own seat in the Scottish Highlands, and the Nat Libs lost two thirds of their seats to Labour. The trend of Labour-Conservative duopoly would be established in force by the next couple of elections, and go on at least until the 1970s.
Attlee himself was as stunned as anyone else to wake up on the 27th and find that he was now Prime Minister-designate. According to his biographer, when he went to see the King, who was himself not known as a man of many words, there was a moment of silence between the two men before Attlee ventured “I’ve won the election”, to which the King is supposed to have replied “Yes, I know, I heard it on the six o’clock news”. Whatever the truth of that, it was a new situation for both of them. Britain had won the war, and Labour had won a majority Government for the first time ever. A daunting few years lay ahead of both…
This turned out to be quite a doozy to write up. Many thanks to @Comisario for straightening out some of the dynamics inside the Labour Party - ever its own worst enemy, it would seem.
Hardly any five-year period in British history, bar perhaps the war years that preceded it, has been more transformative than the first term of the Attlee ministry. Coal mining, steel, gas, water, electricity, rail and the Bank of England were all brought into public ownership (or kept as such following wartime nationalisation). The New Towns Act of 1946 established a development process for building entirely new settlements on rural land to alleviate overcrowding in the major cities, and planning powers to build new housing in existing towns were extended significantly. Public employees’ salaries were increased, National Insurance benefits were provided for the sick and unemployed as well as those injured at work, and the British Empire was reformed by the decolonisation of India and the British Nationality Act 1948, which created a common citizenship status for all British possessions and established free migration between all parts of the Empire.
The most famous legacy of the Attlee Government, however, is undoubtedly the National Health Service. Created in 1946 and coming into effect on 5 July 1948, the NHS was nothing less than the wholesale nationalisation and tax subsidisation of the entire British healthcare sector, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, mental health and dentistry (social care remained a local council responsibility, and independent medical practices remained privately owned although subsidised under the NHS). Every service provided by the NHS was to be free at point of use, though exceptions were immediately made for treatments and appliances more expensive than the basic prescribed models, and would come to be extended over the decades. The NHS was the brainchild of Health Minister Aneurin Bevan, who was inspired to create it by his own experiences of mutual aid in the South Wales Valleys during the Great Depression. The work of creating the NHS would establish Bevan as one of the major heroes in Labour history in the long term and as the standard-bearer of the younger, more stridently left-wing generation of Labour MPs in the short term.
Foreign policy would create the major conflict line within the Party, as Europe settled into its post-war shape and the divide between the Western and Eastern Blocs began to crystallise. Most of the Government was committed to supporting the United States in its struggle against Communist influence in Europe. The Treaty of Brussels, signed in 1948, created a military alliance between the UK, France and the Low Countries, implicitly directed against the Soviet Union, and the next year the North Atlantic Treaty established a broader Western alliance dubbed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO for short, consisting of the Brussels Treaty signatories as well as Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Portugal, Italy, as well as – crucially – Canada and the United States. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had been a major trade union leadership figure in the 1930s, an experience which hardened his anti-Communist convictions, and for him the struggle to keep Communists out of power across Europe was a continuation of his pre-war struggle to keep them out of power in the British trade union movement.
While Bevin’s Atlanticist foreign policy was popular in leadership circles, the 1945 election had brought in a new class of Labour MP, younger and more radical than most of their forebears, who thought Britain’s role needed to be more than playing second fiddle to the Americans. The Keep Left manifesto, co-written by Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo (all 1945 intakes to the House of Commons) and released in 1947, called on the Labour Party to act for a “third force” of democratic socialist European countries that would act as a counterbalance to American capitalism and Soviet communism. The publication of Keep Left, and its popularity on the Labour backbenches, was a constant source of worry for the Government whips, and when a group of backbenchers signed a telegram wishing luck to Pietro Nenni, an Italian socialist leader whose party was in electoral alliance with the Italian Communist Party, in advance of the 1948 Italian general elections, several of them had the whip removed as a disciplinary measure. In Government and in opposition, divisions over foreign policy would continue to plague the Labour Party for much of the following seventy years.
To the extent the public had turned on the Attlee government by the time of the 1950 elections, it was less because of foreign policy and more because of the economy. Even with the backing of an Empire that contained a quarter of the world’s population, six years of total war against the Axis Powers had driven Britain to the edge of bankruptcy. Although three billion dollars in Marshall Aid had helped stabilise the economy, it wasn’t anything like enough to restore the country to its pre-war economic position. The Labour Government focused its economic efforts on securing full employment, which it just about succeeded in – the need for economic and physical reconstruction meant work was in ready supply – but housing and production fared worse. Housing construction was set back by material shortages, and a chronic shortage of petrol and consumer goods meant that rationing had to be continued into peacetime. Bread rationing had needed to be reintroduced after bad harvests in 1946, and the ensuing harsh winter blocked railways and caused severe power shortages as fuel failed to reach power stations. The Government’s policy of food exports to war-ravaged European countries whose food situations were still worse than that of the UK led to complaints that the needs of British people were inadequately seen to by Labour.
So it was by no means a sure thing that Labour would get re-elected in 1950, despite its huge majority and sweeping reforms. Although Winston Churchill had a deep-set personal conviction that Labour’s reforms were harmful to a country at peace, he let himself be persuaded that they were generally still popular and focused the Conservative campaign on the issue of rationing. The key Conservative election promise was that all rationing would be phased out as quickly as possible, while Labour argued that maintenance of rations in the short and medium term would necessary for the security of the country.
One of the reforms carried out by Labour, whose effects were both profound and permanent while less striking than the NHS or the nationalisations, was the Representation of the People Act 1948. It had long been a Labour position that all voters should be represented equally, and that the system of plural voting that had existed until 1945 was opposed to this principle. As such, the Act abolished the university constituencies, which had after all allowed degree holders to vote twice if they so wanted, as well as the provision that allowed the City of London to designate “business voters” to vote for the City’s two MPs and represent commuting business employees (although this system persists to this day for local elections in the City). It also set up strict rules limiting electoral expenditures and regulating the use of broadcasting, postage and motor vehicles for electoral purposes. Finally, the Act required that the entire country be divided into single-member constituencies, and set up a system of Periodic Reviews, carried out by a nonpartisan Boundary Commission for each constituent country, to ensure that constituency boundaries were updated about every ten years to keep up with population movements. In essence, the Representation of the People Act 1948 created the modern British electoral system.
The first election held under the new legislation was carried out in February 1950, half a year before the expiry of the 1945 Parliament, and for the first time, the election was televised. Only London and Birmingham had television transmitters, and the footage was not recorded, but nonetheless, history was made. Richard Dimbleby hosted the coverage, which ran from 10:45 to a little over one o’clock in the morning – between him and his son David, every British general election until 2017 would feature a Dimbleby hosting the BBC election-night coverage.
All three parties had high hopes for the election, with the Liberals fielding 475 candidates – more than twice as many as in 1945. Party leader Clement Davies, who had replaced Archibald Sinclair when the latter lost his seat in the 1945 general election, was convinced the party needed to stand enough candidates to win a majority in order to be credible, and had taken out insurance with Lloyd’s of London to ensure that the £150 deposit lost by unsuccessful candidates (those polling below 12.5%) would be recouped. This would turn out to be a prudent move, as 319 Liberals did lose their deposits, and only nine were elected. It seemed the Liberals were not about to make a comeback, and over the 1950s the party would continue to atrophy.
The 1950 election would turn out to be one of the closest in recent memory, with the Conservatives making strides with their anti-rationing campaign even as Labour’s vote held up throughout its working-class heartlands. Attlee’s Government would end up being re-elected, but it was by a very narrow margin – the Government’s net majority in the new Parliament was only five. Labour had proved that its 1945 victory wasn’t a fluke, and that the Labour-Conservative duopoly was here to stay, but it was a precarious seat to be in for a leader whose party was known for infighting over foreign and security policy and who only needed three dissenting votes to lose a division. And across the world, in a country cut in half by the victors of the Second World War, the drums of war were beating once more. Ernest Bevin’s new foreign policy was about to face its most serious test to date…