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The General Election of 1945 Essay

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“It was not so much that Labour won the General Election of 1945, but that Churchill and the Conservatives lost it.” Assess the validity of this view.

The question of who “won” or “lost” the election is essentially a question of whether the election result was more of a failure of the Conservative party, or a success of the Labour party. Although it could be argued, as in source C, that “Labour’s campaign had a much more modern look to it with a much wider appeal to the community as a whole”, and so Labour were more successful at capturing the support of voters than the Conservatives, one could also argue that the election was really the Conservatives’ to lose (they were widely seen as “the natural party of government”, and had Winston Churchill, an extremely popular wartime Prime Minister, to their credit), and their various failures at campaigning and appeal were their undoing.

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The Labour Party had many positive advantages over the Conservatives, as listed in source B, the first being “the wartime experience”. The experience of war, not only in terms of the social and economic changes and interference from the state, but also in terms of the public’s experience of Labour ministers in government, had been enormously favourable to the Labour party. Wartime policies such as rationing (which actually was of benefit to the diets of a large number of the population) and evacuation had a great effect on perceptions of class and the ability of the state to direct production and distribution effectively.

The Beveridge report, published in 1942, was also given huge national attention and was embraced wholly by the Labour party, while the Conservatives remained divided on its recommendations – it [from source A] “could not be trusted to build upon the advances… made during the war” (socially, economically, etc). The war, in all, gave the Labour party a positive image and made it seem the party which was more closely aligned to the interests and attitudes of the country – which could be seen as a social climate making the election more of a Labour victory than a Conservative defeat.

Labour’s campaign also had a much more positive and optimistic message than the Conservatives’ which was mainly focused on Churchill and winning the war, and paid less attention to domestic issues than Labour’s. Incidents like Churchill’s “Gestapo speech”, in which Churchill aligned Labour and socialism with totalitarianism, not only made the Conservative party seem hypocritical (for adopting such policies as they would criticise) but also made the party seem out of touch with the views and sympathies of the public (or, if not influencing this dissonance, being an example of it). Overall, then, it is arguable that the 1945 election result was generally reflective of a positive swell of support for Labour than a negative reaction to a Conservative failure.

It is worth noting that many of those who voted in the 1945 election were new voters who only became eligible to vote after the last election (which was ten years before in 1935). Thus much of the voting population were not habitual voters for any party, and it could be said that the result merely illustrated the gradual change which had taken place in the ten years between the two elections (the swing was in fact less pronounced than it seemed – Labour had been leading in polls for many years preceding the elections).

The Conservatives, in contrast, had been damaged in a number of ways by the war. The party machinery, previously well-oiled and efficient, had been allowed to disintegrate – the Party did not hold annual conferences throughout the war coalition, and many of those who would run the local party branches (who in the Conservatives’ case were often middle class and in non-reserved occupations) had been conscripted to the Forces and thus the party’s local presence deteriorated. Labour’s party machinery, in contrast, was often run by people in reserved occupations (such as mining, etc), and had vastly improved.

The Conservative Cabinet members had concentrated on the foreign aspects of the war, and so did not maintain as prominent a public presence and effect as the Labour ministers did, whose fields focused on domestic aspects of the war effort. Thus the Conservatives’ contribution to the war and the domestic social climate was both less in reality and in public perception – it was Labour the people saw. This also implies that any Labour victory was really to be more expected and that people voted for Labour, rather than against the Conservative – it was not that the Conservatives were seen as an awful party, but Labour as a better one.

On the other hand, it could be said that there were many negative factors which made the election result a resounding Conservative defeat. The Labour pamphlet, “The Guilty Party”, which blamed the Conservatives for the appeasement policy of the 1930’s, highlighted the Conservatives’ record before the Second World War; characterised by high unemployment, economic depression, poverty, and of course appeasement. After the National Government took power, there had been more than a decade of Conservative-dominated government, and it is possible that the voters’ having tired of the Party, as well as having bad memories of its rule, contributed strongly to negative perceptions of its party and a more positive attitude to the more ‘progressive’ policies of Labour.

Finally, the proportion of votes to seats was very skewed in favour of Labour, making the victory appear more overwhelming than it was. The Conservatives still gained ten million votes (source A shows) to Labour’s twelve million, so it was not the case that the Conservatives had lost a great deal of support by the end of the war – it was more the case that Labour had gained more support; the Conservatives had not been resoundingly defeated – Labour had just managed to beat them. Overall, then, the factors contributing to the 1945 election result can more easily support an opposite view to the one presented, because they portray the vote as a positive one for Labour rather than a negative one for the Conservatives. However, there is no reason why the election could not have been both won by Labour and lost by the Conservatives – indeed, it is hard to see how it could not have been both.

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