July 5th

On this day in 1945, Britain held a postwar general election which saw Labour leader Clement Attlee enter 10 Downing Street by the end of the month with his party winning its first ever parliamentary majority.

attlee july 28 1945

Although the election was held on July 5th, the results were not declared until July 26th due to some delayed polls and the number of votes cast by men serving abroad. Here Attlee (centre) is pictured celebrating his victory on July 28th.

The election of 1945 was the first general election held in Britain since 1935; the 1911 Parliament Act had set parliamentary terms to 5 years, however the 1940 election was suspended due to the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939. During the war, the three main parties entered a grand coalition government with Winston Churchill (CONS) at the helm as Prime Minister. Two weeks after VE Day (May 8th 1945) Churchill resigned, triggering a general election for July 5th.

The 72 seat majority that Stanley Baldwin (CONS) had won in 1935 was to be shattered in the postwar election, as Labour won its first ever parliamentary majority. The reasons for this historic victory are hotly debated between factors including the strengths of the Labour campaign, weaknesses of the Conservative Party and the dramatic changes in British society that had occurred over the last decade (largely as a result of the war).

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Prime Minister Clement Attlee standing outside 10 Downing Street.

1945 Labour Party Conservative Party Liberal Party
Seats Won 393 197 12
Seat Gain/Loss 239 -189 -9
Seats Before 154 386 21

Attlee’s party ran a campaign on the grounds of adopting Keynesian economics, in which a cradle-to-grave welfare state would be established in order to protect all elements of society. Campaign promises included full-employment and the creation of a National Health Service. These messages seemed to connect with a population which had just faced the Blitz and faced the short-term economic downturn linked with a move away from wartime production. Clearly the Second World War played a major role in this shift in British politics, not least because it united the British people against an enemy abroad as opposed to an enemy within – fears of communism within the Labour Party had been a lynchpin in Conservative election campaigns since 1924. Moreover, the war had given Labour a chance to enjoy a longer period in government than it had before, allowing it to build a reputation that it was the best party to rebuild the country from 1945.

The ineffective and arrogant Conservative campaign in 1945 did the party few favours, ensuring that Labour’s lead in opinion polls (which it had held since 1942) continued to grow until election day. Prominent blunders included Churchill’s absurd remarks that “some form of a Gestapo” would be required for Attlee to introduce his programme. Long-term factors also served to impair the Conservative election effort; their leadership in the 1930s was noteworthy for its ineffective domestic and foreign policy and the party was marred by its response to the Wall Street Crash (1929) which proved virtually impossible for any government around the globe to manage.

“In the 5 years from 1945, Attlee’s government had given Britain the welfare state. This meant housing projects on an unprecedented scale, the revered National Health Service and nationalisation of countless services, such as the Bank of England, the National Rail and the iron and steel industries, to mention a few. In 1950, Attlee won a second a general election with a reduced majority of 5 seats. The PM wanted to continue his ambitious programme of reform, but he needed a strong majority to do so. Accordingly, he called a snap election just one year into his second term. The snap election is considered to have been an ill-advised decision as Labour trailed behind the Conservatives in the polls, even before it was called. Unsurprisingly, the government were defeated (despite winning the popular vote by 0.8%) and the war PM, Winston Churchill, resumed office after a 6 year period in opposition.”

– Extract from 2017, another 1923? UK Snap Election on the Cards

Coincidentally, the National Health Service (NHS) began on the ‘Appointed Day‘ of July 5th 1948, a service spearheaded by Attlee’s Minister of Health Nye Bevan.

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