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“The main reason for Conservative dominance between the years 1951-1964 was Labour disunity” assess the validity of this view. Labour disunity was undoubtedly significant and contributed hugely to the Conservative party’s ability to dominate politically throughout this period. However, it would be wrong to argue that divisions within the Labour party are alone responsible for this. Other reasons include poor Labour leadership, the strength of the Conservatives and affluence between the years 1951-1964. Divisions within the Labour party were hugely problematic and largely to blame for the Conservative dominance.
“When Labour had lost power it had tended… to tear itself up into small pieces” (Marr), generating lots of infighting between the left and right of the party and the inability to produce policies with clarity. In the 1950 election Labour’s majority was reduced to 5 and it was the start of mounting dissatisfaction within the party.
In 1951, the Labour party was divided between the Bevanites and the Frognal/Hampstead Set after the introduced charges for false teeth and spectacles in order to reduce welfare spending by Gaitskell, this prompted Bevan to resign from the government as he believed it was against the principle of a free NHS.
This open challenge to prescription charges encouraged members of the party to voice their doubts over the direction of economic, welfare and foreign policies and the Conservatives took advantage over these internal divisions. Labour’s left wing ideology made British participation in the Korean War hugely unpopular with the hard left members of the party.
Clearly growing factions and infighting, coupled with the strength of the Conservatives, made the party less than appealing and weakened it before the 1951 general election. In 1955, an ageing Labour Party- now out of power- was continuously producing splits both in terms of ideology and personalities due to the constant infighting between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites.
The divisions were growing rapidly after the Morecambe conference in 1952 when the Bevanite faction mobilised to remove prominent right wingers from the party’s National Executive Committee, shortly afterwards Gaitskell gave an extremely provocative speech at Stalybridge accusing the Bevanites of being “communist infiltration of the party” (Goodlad). This spectacle demonstrated to the public that the party was divided and therefore weakened Labour at the 1055 general election. German rearmament in 1954, made a unilateralist party incredibly unappealing to the electorate who certainly didn’t want to be vulnerable in the event of another war. In response to the creation of the hydrogen bomb in 1957, the CND formed in 1958, led by the unilateralist hard left members of the Labour party who ultimately undermined Gaitskell by imposing unilateralism on the Labour by relying on the block vote of the major unions.
The 1959 election was held at the peak of the Cold War, clearly awful timing for a party to have a disarmament policy. Gaitskell himself accused the left of weakening the movement due to their unilateralist demands, they in turn accused Gaitskell of betraying the party principle when attempting to abolish clause 4. Between the years 1945-51 the Labour party developed the atomic bomb. And by 1951 it was the issue that caused the biggest divide in the party, demonstrating the party’s lack of credibility to make decisions regarding foreign policy. Leadership of the Labour party was arguably flawed throughout 1951-64 and weakened the party in elections; this was undoubtedly exploited by the Conservatives and allowed them to dominate. The election of 1951 was potentially lost due to poor leadership as “The party’s ageing leadership appeared to have run out of drive and ideas” (Goodlad) and members such as Attlee, Herbert, Morrison and Ernest Bevin had all been working continuously since 1940.
Attlee was worn out by the economic problems and exhausted after the 6 troubled years. By 1955 “the 72-year-old Attlee had little new to offer” (Goodlad), especially in comparison to Eden who was an extremely strong and popular leader, Attlee was expected to step down by this point and was unable to control the growing factions within his party, making it increasingly difficult for the him to create a set of clear policies. The 1959 election took place at the peak of the Cold War, incredibly bad timing for Gaitskell who had been defeated by the supporters of the unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Scarborough conference.
Although division in the party van be blamed for causing this highly unpopular policy, to a large extent Gaitskell is at fault for having such limited control over the factions within his party. Another demonstration of Gaitskell’s weak leadership was his promises to increase social spending in 1959; however this couldn’t be delivered without raising taxes, showing his lack of awareness of public opinion as people began to associate the party with high taxes, rationing and recessions. Furthermore, Gaitskell appeared incredibly weak when undermined by the hard left of the party and union members when attempting to abolish clause 4, committing his party to nationalisation, in 1959 general election. However, poor leadership cannot be solely blamed for allowing the Conservatives to dominate between the years 1951 to 1964. Attlee, for example, shaped modern Britain through his highly popular post war consensus and had a “great deal to be modest about” (Winston Churchill).
He was arguably the greatest post war prime minister and left a lasting legacy despite the difficult economic crisis and rising debt he was faced with. Gaitskell was leader of the Labour party between 1955 and 1963 and is believed to be “a leader who was undoubtedly one of the most gifted politicians of the day” (Rowe). Gaitskell was an incredibly impressive speaker, for example, in 1956 he destroyed Eden’s attempts to justify the British occupation of the Suez Canal Zone. Wilson was in power of the Labour party between the years 1963 to 1964 and was the first prime minister since 1951 able to reconcile the party’s different wings. At the 1963 Scarborough conference he emphasised the importance of modernisation and a technological revolution in Britain ‘forged by white heat’, focusing both divisions in the party on the goal of recovering power. Wilson was extremely flexible and acutely sensitive to public opinion, thus allowing him to adapt the party’s image.
The strength of Wilson and the significance of healing divisions in the Labour party is clearly evident as Labour won the general election in October 1964, ending Conservative dominance. Labour had a set of beliefs that arguably generated the divides in the party, allowing the Conservatives to dominate throughout this period. Previously, during the war Labour’s strong ideology had allowed the party to appeal to many, the ambitious programme of welfare reform was a huge success and Attlee had created an incredibly popular post war consensus. However, as the economy improved, the average income was rising, there was a growing middle class and a decline in the working class, making socialism appear outdated and much less appealing.
Particularly in the 1955 election the general mood of the electorate was that there was no need for change as they were experiencing ‘happathy’ due to the rising standards of living. The party was “excessively driven by ideology” (Bernstein), demonstrated by their nationalisation of steel and road haulage. Both of which were unpopular and “unnecessarily interfered with the free market” (Bernstein). Having a strong ideology made it much more difficult for the party to adapt to popular opinion and created divisions in the group between the ‘champagne socialists’ and the hard left. Within the Labour Party there was many disagreements regarding defence, foreign policy and the economy.
The Conservatives arguably dominated throughout this period due to their seemingly strong leadership and ability to adapt, unlike the Labour party the Conservatives had “not a creed or a doctrine but an imposition” (Oakeshott), meaning the party did not represent a singular ideology allowing them to adapt and maintain power, demonstrated when Churchill embraced the popular post war consensus and delivered welfare and post war prosperity. This ‘one nation toryism’ enabled the party to appeal to a wider spectrum of the electorate whereas Labour was wedded to the outdated socialism while “heroic modernisers dragged the [Conservative] party into the 20th century” (Charmley). The strength of the Conservatives was not the sole reason behind their dominance as “Labour disunity and consensus played major roles in keeping the Conservatives in power” (Marr).
It can be argued that the Conservatives dominated by default during these years as they themselves showed weak leadership throughout these years, prime examples being the Profumo affair and Eden’s decision to occupy the Suez Canal. Furthermore, many aspects of the post war consensus, the NHS and much of the nationalisation in particular is fundamentally against traditional Conservative beliefs demonstrating that compromise must have been necessary in order for the party to have continuous control between these years, making their strength questionable. Affluence during this period was clearly key to the Conservative’s popularity and dominance.
On the surface the 1950s appeared to be a golden age, it was a rare period of hope and confidence in British life and the 1945 idea of moving to socialism through public ownership was beginning to seem much less attractive by the general election of 1951 as key Labour policies such as nationalisation were no longer working effectively. Throughout the 1950s under the Conservatives there was full employment, rising standards of living and a welfare state, many of the things socialists claimed were unachievable in a capitalist state. This is a clear demonstration of the failure of the Labour Party to adapt to popular support as many of the hard left were “out of date and attacking the society of the 1930s” (Crosland). Naturally, like most economies, the rate of economic growth in Britain rose after the war and the Conservatives were extremely fortunate in the timing that they came to power as “post-war recovery created an expansionist environment that encouraged investment and helped promote further recovery” (Bernstein). After ending rationing in 1954 Britain became a ‘consumerist society’, with a huge rise in demand for luxury items, the number of cars sold between 1950-1965 rose from 1.5 million to 5.5 million and Sir Oliver Poole recalled driving past crowds revelling in their new consumer goods which previously they had not been able to afford such as televisions, washing machines, fridges etc.
Under Conservative rule there was a rise in men’s weekly wages from £8.30 in 1951 to £15.35 in 1961 while prices rose by only 45%. The Conservatives also achieved their aim of building 300,000 houses per year, while earlier Labour’s emphasis had been almost entirely on working class houses built and owned by local councils, they promoted a “more broadly based housing programme, one that provided for all social groups” (Bernstein) allowing them to appeal to a larger sector of the electorate during 1951-1964. It is important to not overlook the stop-go economic policies used by the Conservatives to manipulate prosperity in Britain, in the short term it allowed the government to make the electorate feel more financially positive, for example Butler to have a give away budget of £134 million in tax cuts in the run up to the 1955 election.
However, stop go economics highlights the failure of government to create policies which encouraged a consistently performing economy. Furthermore, growth rate was the lowest in Western Europe (2.3%) despite all attempts of the Government to modernise and increase the productivity of the manufacturing industry. It can be argued that the primary reason for the 13 years of Conservative dominance is the divisions within the Labour Party as they fundamentally undermined both Attlee and Gaitskell, making the party appear weak and unappealing to the electorate. Additionally, Wilson ending this period of dominance in the October 1964 general election after bringing both factions of his party together suggests that the infighting was a major factor behind allowing the Conservatives to dominate.
The ideology of the Labour Party is also at fault for generating two competing sides with contrasting believe, however, much of the blame must fall on the strong personalities of the Bevanites for criticising the party rather than supporting it. It can be argued that although the Conservatives were a strong party during this time, the result of the 1964 general election “confirms the old adage that elections are usually lost by governments rather than won by opposition” (Goodlad) and that they were simply domination by default due to lack of effective opposition. It can be argued that affluence during this period was only a factor for the Conservative’s dominance due to their ability to contrast themselves against Labour’s image of rationing and high taxes as this ‘golden age’ was simply a post-war byproduct rather than the result of any successful economic policies.
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