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The 1950 and 1951 General Elections in Britain

Robert Pearce asks why Labour’s period in office under Clement Attlee came to an end.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

The results of the 1945 general election exceeded the hopes of the most fervent Labour supporter. Never before had the party achieved an overall majority in the House of Commons, and yet now Labour had a huge parliamentary majority of 146 seats. 'I think we've got 20 years of power ahead of us,' mused the newly-elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Most political pundits assumed that, starting from such a base, Labour would inevitably secure at least a reasonable majority in five years' time, and hence the party seemed assured of at least ten years in office. And yet in 1950 Labour scraped home with a majority of five seats, and the following year the Conservatives won by 17. The upshot was that Labour was out of office until 1964.

What had caused this remarkable transformation? Whereas the 1945 general election has been a source of endless debate among historians, so that we now have a very good understanding of Labour’s accession to power, the subsequent general elections have been strangely neglected. Hence the reasons for Labour’s fall from power have not been clearly established. Was Labour’s performance in office such that it simply did not merit the electorate’s endorsement? Or were there special circumstances that explain the fall? Did the election campaigns matter, or were longer-term factors paramount? Perhaps it was more a case of the Conservatives winning, rather than Labour losing? … Just how do we explain Labour’s defeat?

The Starting Point 

First, we should make a virtue of what we do understand – the nature of Labour’s victory in 1945. Did the reasons for Labour’s great victory have any relevance in 1950 and 1951?

The causes of the '45 victory can be simply summarised:

  • Labour was more in tune than the Conservatives with public opinion, especially with the wartime ethos of equality and ‘fair shares’ and with hopes for a new welfare state. Hence its manifesto promises had wide appeal.
  • Labour had a better front bench team than the Conservatives, appearing both more talented and more trustworthy.
  • In the improvised campaign of 1945 Labour’s electoral machinery was no longer inferior to that of its rival.
  • The British ‘first past the post’ system gave Labour a huge majority of seats (just over 61 per cent) even though they won less than half of the popular vote.

 Labour's Achievements

Undoubtedly Labour had promised more than the Conservatives in the 1945 election. Yet such promises, while resulting in temporary popularity in the polls, might turn out to be hostages to fortune. Such had been the case with the Lloyd George Coalition, elected at the end of the First World War. Yet Labour exhibited a steely determination to make Britain a better place in which to live, and the 1945-50 administration goes down in history as the government that fulfilled more of its promises than any other. 

In total, the 1945 parliament passed no fewer than 347 acts of parliament. Clearly there is no opportunity here to focus on details, but we do need to be aware of broad contours. On the home front, the Beveridge report was implemented, with the National Insurance Act of 1946 and the National Assistance Act of 1948. Furthermore, Labour inaugurated the National Health Service in 1948 (generally seen as one of the most valuable reforms in the whole of British history), built over a million new houses, and raised the school leaving age to 15. Labour also fulfilled its promise to nationalise key areas of British industry, including the coal mines, the railways, gas and electricity. Externally, Labour granted independence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma, pulled out of Palestine, and helped set up an important new security pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Inevitably the 1950 general election revolved around Labour’s record in office. Had they done enough to earn re-election? The party chairman claimed at the 1950 annual conference that ‘Poverty has been abolished, hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folk are cherished, our children are growing up in a land of plenty.’ Yet against this seductive exaggeration – and even against Labour’s modest 1950 manifesto statement that ‘By and large the first majority Labour Government has served the country well’ – could be set postwar shortages, continuing rationing and high taxation, a series of financial crises, and general drab austerity. (The little bit of fun and glamour for which Labour was responsible, the Festival of Britain in May-September 1951, came too late to change perceptions of the period.) Objectively, it was a mixed record, as is that of every government, but what mattered at the polls were voters’ subjective responses, which reflected a mixed bag of concerns, including personalities as well as policies.

Attlee and his Ministers

Even some Conservative politicians, like Harold Macmillan, admitted that Labour's ministerial team constituted an exceptionally talented group of people. Labour had seemed to dominate the home front during the war, thanks to Winston Churchill's willingness to promote so many politicians outside his own Conservative party. Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Dalton, Cripps, Bevan - here was a formidable team indeed. Yet by 1950, and even more by 1951, some of the gloss had been removed.

Partly this was a matter of age. The average age in the cabinet in 1950 was around 60, and it would have been considerably higher but for the admission of a small number of younger men, like Harold Wilson (born 47 years after the cabinet’s oldest member). Stress was also beginning to take its toll. Most heavyweight Labour figures had been in office for ten years, and all had health problems, especially Ernest Bevin (who died in April 1951) and Stafford Cripps (who had to resign as Chancellor in October 1950 and died 18 months later). Furthermore, Labour became rent by ideological and policy disagreements. Leading ministers could cooperate when they had an agreed agenda to work to, but not so once the commitments of Let Us Face the Future had been achieved. Whereas Herbert Morrison and the majority of the party called for ‘consolidation’, Aneurin Bevan and Labour fundamentalists wanted further bold reforms, especially more nationalisation. Labour was clearly less united at the 1950 election than in 1945, and in April 1951 Bevan resigned over the imposition of health service charges at a time of burgeoning defence estimates. He took with him Harold Wilson and John Freeman. Perhaps the Conservatives were now a better front bench bet?

The Revival of the Conservative Party

Defeat in 1945 delivered a salutary shock to the Tories, removing the complacent assumption that they were the natural rulers of Britain. Conservatives had somehow to repair the catastrophic fall in the number of their parliamentary seats. Yet at least their popular vote, at virtually 40 per cent, was a good base from which recovery might emerge.

Party leader Winston Churchill was 76 in 1950, and had suffered a stroke the previous year, but he was still a popular figure and could be a star performer on his day; and the fact that he tended to neglect the House of Commons meant that other Conservatives now received their share of the limelight and became of recognised political weight. Anthony Eden had perforce to speak on other than foreign policy issues, and Harold Macmillan, ‘Rab’ Butler, Oliver Stanley, Oliver Lyttelton and others made names for themselves. But to win back power the Conservatives had also to modernise their policies and party machinery.

Butler saw quite clearly that the Conservatives had to accept the bulk of Labour reforms, in terms of the welfare state and the ‘mixed economy’. It was not easy for him to overcome diehard opposition in the party, especially from Churchill, but eventually the Tories’ were kitted out in modern clothing, in the form of a series of charters. The most important of these, The Industrial Charter, was adopted at the 1947 annual conference, drawing from Anthony Eden the statement that ‘We are not a party of unbridled, brutal capitalism and never have been.’ By 1950 the Conservatives, in their manifesto, This Is The Road, accepted the majority of Labour reforms, so that for instance they would ‘maintain and improve the health service’, while also promising to introduce a beneficial dose of competition into the economy and free ‘the productive energies of the nation from the trammels of overbearing state control and bureaucratic management’.

Further reforms were carried out by the new party chairman, Lord Woolton. He helped revitalise Conservative grassroots by setting local party workers the energising task of raising £1 million. At the same time he laid down that no parliamentary candidate should contribute more than £25 a year to his local constituency party (or £50 if he or she were an incumbent MP), thus removing the incentive for local associations to choose only wealthy men to represent them. It was still far from easy for people of limited means to become Conservative candidates, but ‘the class of 1950’ included an especially able crop of young MPs, including Edward Heath, Ian Macleod, Reginald Maudling, and Enoch Powell.

In 1950 and 1951 the Conservative political machine was far more efficient and powerful than in 1945. The party was attracting large donations from businessmen, especially those who feared further nationalisation, and its propaganda was becoming increasingly sophisticated. Perhaps not surprisingly, the great majority of newspapers also supported the Conservative cause. Yet even so, the Conservatives did not secure as many votes as Labour either in 1950 or 1951.

The Electoral System

By examining the overall results of the three elections – in 1945, 1950 and 1951 – we can see just how far the electoral fortunes of the major parties changed.
 
General Election Statistics - Seats

 
1945
1950
1951
Labour
393
315
295
Conservative
213
290
321
Liberal
12
9
6

 
These figures make perfectly clear the decline in Labour’s fortunes and the powerful rise of the Conservatives. Yet in themselves they provide no clues as to why it occurred. Hence we have to delve more deeply, and consider the actual voting figures.
 
General Election Statistics – Votes

 
1945
Labour
11.99m (47.8%)
Conservative
9.99m (39.8%)
Liberal
2.25m (9.0%)
 
1950
Labour
13.27m (46.1%)
Conservative
12.5m (43.5%)
Liberal
2.62m (9.1%)
 
1951
Labour
13.95m (48.8%)
Conservative
13.72m (48.0%)
Liberal
0.73m (2.5%)

 

These statistics are immensely revealing. They show that although Labour seats declined significantly, Labour’s popular vote was amazingly resilient. There was a marginal fall in the percentage of votes Labour polled between 1945 and 1950, but in 1951 the party polled a higher percentage of votes than in its landslide victory of 1945. In fact, when Labour lost in 1951 it attracted more votes than the Conservatives, who won, and indeed more votes than any party had ever attracted in British history.

As for the Conservatives, they certainly did well between 1945 and 1950, gaining a massive 85 seats (virtually a 40 per cent increase) but with a rise in their poll of only 3.7 per cent. In 1951 they gained almost an 8 per cent increase in seats with a percentage increase of 4.5 in their total votes. The Conservatives were growing in popularity after 1945, especially in the southern suburbs, but their victory in 1951 was clearly very lucky. The 1951 contest was the only election in modern British history where the runner-up in terms of votes gained an actual majority of seats in the House of Commons. How can this be explained?

One very important factor is the changing fortunes of the third party, the Liberals. Their significance was negligible in 1945, when their total of 12 seats was dwarfed by that of both other parties. Yet, paradoxically, as their performance faltered their significance grew. In 1950 the party made a great effort, only winning 9 seats but fielding 475 candidates (169 more than in 1945). The following year, however, the Liberals had exhausted their funds and could put up only 109 candidates, of whom half a dozen were returned to Westminster. Inevitably the Liberals received far less support in 1951, indeed almost 2 million fewer votes, and a higher proportion of candidate-less Liberals voted Conservative rather than Labour.

Yet a full explanation of Labour’s ill fortune, in polling more votes but gaining fewer seats than the Tories, requires some consideration of the electoral system as a whole. Under the British system, a constituency is won by the candidate with most votes, whether the majority be a single vote or tens of thousands. In 1950 and 1951 many Labour votes were ‘wasted’ in safe constituencies. In fact, Labour ended up with 50 of the 60 largest constituency majorities.

Yet why had a system, which had helped produce a Labour landslide in 1945, suddenly begun to boost the Conservatives? For an answer we must look to the Representation of the People Acts of 1948 and 1949. These abolished plural voting (whereby the owners of business premises outside their constituency of residence could vote twice) and also the separate university seats, and thereby almost certainly benefited Labour. But they also abolished two-member constituencies and substantially redrew constituency boundaries to take account of changing population patterns, much to Labour’s disadvantage. The reforms also introduced postal voting for the first time, and according to Herbert Morrison these were cast 10-1 in favour of the Conservatives. Prime Minister Attlee could have postponed these reforms, which it was widely recognised would harm Labour’s fortunes, but he was not tempted to do so. There were, he said, three principles which he held dear in politics and from which he would not depart: ‘morality, morality and morality’.

The Election Campaigns

In 1945 the general campaign had been dramatic, especially with Churchill's 'Gestapo' speech, and yet the experts have concluded that it made very little difference to the result. But what of those in 1950 and 1951? 

In February 1950 the campaign was, according to Churchill, ‘demure’. It seemed to lack the excitement and drama of 1945, even though the turnout was a remarkable 84 per cent. Labour seized on Churchill’s statement that, if the Conservatives won, he would arrange a ‘meeting at the summit’ with the Americans and Russians, an innocuous enough remark but one which Labour stigmatised as a ‘stunt’. Perhaps they had to combat the Conservative reminder that Nye Bevan had in 1948 referred to ‘Tories’ as ‘lower than vermin’. Both parties were scraping the barrel: it was an election remarkably devoid of sensationalism.

In October 1951 the campaign was only a little more lively. The Conservatives suggested that it was a ‘critical Election which may well be the turning point in the fortunes and even the life of Britain’; but there was no sense of national emergency. The Conservatives promised to build 300,000 houses year, while a Labour newspaper, the Daily Mirror, ran a story entitled ‘Whose Finger on the Trigger?’, suggesting that, if elected, Churchill might well start an atomic war. Yet the effect of such last-minute attempts to grab the headlines almost certainly had a negligible effect. The results in 1951, with a 2.5 per cent swing to the Conservatives, were simply a re-run of 1950 with the added effects of the short-lived 1950-51 government, which had suffered not only Bevan’s resignation but also the economically harmful Korean war and the humiliating nationalisation of the Abadan oil refinery in Iran. (The Guardian decided that the 1950-51 administration should be known as the ‘unhappy Parliament’.)

The Constituencies

There was a good measure of consensus between the parties in both 1950 and 1951 (forshadowing 'Butskellism' later in the decade). Yet we should not imagine that elections then were the same as those now, where party strategies - and national coverage on television - are virtually all-important. In 1950-51 the constituencies mattered much more, and in them carefully crafted messags of the party bosses sometimes had little impact.  

The Spectator trumpeted ‘that the Tories of 1950 are not the Tories of 1935’. Yet many candidates were not nearly so accepting of Labour’s major reforms as the party bigwigs. In Dartford the young Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher), for instance, called Labour’s welfare reforms ‘pernicious’; and at West Dartford the local candidate insisted that another Labour government would produce ‘straight totalitarianism’. Mass Observation found in 1949 that Labour voters were convinced that a Conservative victory ‘would mean mass unemployment, the dismantlement of the Welfare State, more industrial disputes, and an abrupt extension of private enterprise.’ On the other hand, Conservative voters expected that a Labour victory would produce ‘a much wider application of nationalisation, the neglect of national material prosperity, and excessive class-oriented legislation.’ This local dimension, with its apprehensions and misapprehensions, must be taken into account in any realistic explanation of the results of the general elections of 1950 and 1951.

Conclusion

The results were so close that many different factors may seem important and perhaps even crucial. Was Attlee right in his timing of the elections? Certainly the choice of October 1951 was highly controversial. Many senior colleagues would have preferred the spring of 1952 – and in fact it turned out that Labour then had a majority in the opinion polls. If Bevan had bitten the bullet over charges for false teeth and spectacles, or perhaps if Labour had kept more middle-class voters by being more openly ‘consolidationist’, might they have won? If the Liberals had been able to field more candidates, would Labour have triumphed? These propositions are certainly possible.

How much weight should we give to Labour's record, with its solid achievements against a backdrop of economic austerity, and also to the substantial recovery of the Conservatives which allowed them to regain many of the middle-class voters they had lost in 1945? Such matters certainly should have mattered, and mattered enormously. Or were the elections of 1950 and 1951decided primarily by the redrawing of constituency boundaries prior to the elections, or by the unpredictability of events, or by the Coonservatives' superior propaganda? And what of other factors that have not been mentioned in this short article, like the resurgent image of capitalism on the back of the American postwar plenty?

The fact is, of course, that Britons voted privately, not publicly, in 1950 and 1951, as they had done ever since the Ballot Act of 1872, and that therefore we can never be perfectly sure who voted for which party, and certainly not why. There will always be speculation about the reasons for election results, for we cannot hope to penetrate the minds of millions of individual voters, some of whom were very sophisticated and some of whom seem to have been virtually politically illiterate (thinking, for instance, that ‘Socialist’ and ‘Tory’ were not synonyms for Labour and Conservative but referred to entirely separate parties). The fact is that the results of these two elections are enormously difficult to unravel – and that is exactly how it should be.  

Issues to Debate

  • How important were electoral and boundary reforms in 1948 and 1949 in determining election results in 1950?
  • Why were the Conservatives much more formidable election opponents in 1950 and 1951 than in 1945?
  • How would you have voted in these elections, and why? 

Further Reading

  • D.E. Butler, The British General Election of 1951 (Macmillan, 1952)
  • R.A. Butler, The Art of the Possible (Penguin, 1973)
  • Roger Eatwell, The 1945-51 Labour Governments (Batsford, 1979)
  • H.G. Nicholas, The British General Election of 1950 (Macmillan, 1951)
  • Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 1945-62 (Fontana, 1971)
  • David Kynaston, Austerity Britain 1945-51 (Bloomsbury, 2007)
  • Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post-War Britain (Penguin, 1979)

Robert Pearce is the editor of History Review. His books on the 1945-51 period include Patrick Gordon Walker (Historians’ Press, 1991),  Attlee’s Labour Governments (Routledge, 1994) and Attlee (Longman, 1997).

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