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1945 at 75: Labour’s Very Reasonable Revolution

Anthony Broxton looks back on the election win that Labour now aspire to

Artillery Row

Seventy five years ago today, on a wet and miserable July morning, the people of Britain waited patiently for the results of the first general election in a decade. Three weeks earlier they had voted and watched as the ballot boxes were locked up and stored away in town hall basements (while the votes of servicemen were shipped back from across the globe). The counting finally began at 9am. Few expected Winston Churchill, basking in the glow of war victory, to be defeated. Bookmakers offered 5/1 on a Labour victory, with few interested takers.

The first shock came at 10 am when Manchester Exchange, a Tory powerbase for for decades, turned red. By midday, as the Conservative Blue Wall in Lancashire and the South crumbled, it was clear that a new political landscape had been forged. With Labour on course to govern with a majority for the first time in the party’s history, a diner at the Savoy Hotel remarked: “This is terrible. They’ve elected a Labour Government. The country will never stand for that” (Age of Austerity, David Kynaston).

It was the culmination of a steady campaign of reassurance that Labour was not, in fact, a revolutionary party

What happened to the British electorate in 1945, in towns as diverse as Oldham, Blackburn, Taunton and Winchester, has been hotly debated ever since. Some argue that the war sparked a socialist attitude in the people. Others have claimed that it was the influence of servicemen – brainwashed by propaganda – who turned to Labour in a desperate bid to come home.

But looking back, it is clear that this was no overnight revolution. Instead it was the culmination of a steady campaign of reassurance that Labour was not, in fact, a revolutionary party. As Roy Hattersley concluded  in a 1983 documentary on Clement Attlee, it was an election that “amounted to a revolution” but “Attlee’s genius was his ability to explain that his revolution was reasonable”.

Five years earlier, in 1940, Labour had set out on this course. At the party conference, a resolution was passed which emphasised that the party was “an alliance of workers by hand and brain”, with a programme “not less urgently addressed to the black coated worker than to his fellow in the field, factory or mine’” (Labour Party Annual Conference Review, 1940).

Labour’s pitch to Middle England was spearheaded by a man often overlooked by historians. Herbert Morrison understood that Britain was not a revolutionary country. During the war, he reminded the party that ‘sectional interest does not win political consent or conviction in this country’.

In a speech delivered in Leeds in 1942, he outlined Labour’s task. The nation, he argued, “will respond to our lead and rally under our banner” only if the party is “more than a party of social services and wage standards” (Morrison Speech April 3rd, 1942, Looking Ahead). Morrison, the grandfather of Peter Mandelson, was an innovator who understood that Labour needed to appeal to a rising middle class and speak in a language that people could relate to. To win, he urged party members to ditch the “stereotyped selection planks from the traditional party platform” and express themselves in a manner “the ordinary citizen can at once understand’ Morrison Speech April 3rd, 1942, Looking Ahead).

Morrison’s appeal among the electorate was recognised by Churchill ,who made him Home Secretary in October 1940. From there, he became one of the most well-known politicians in the country. By the time of the election, in May 1945, his task was to reach the “suburban so-called middle class areas” (Labour Party Annual Conference Review, 1945). It was to this group he often returned: “Labour has a programme which can and must appeal to workers by brain as well as by hand”. It was, he argued, as much for “the great numbers of progressive-minded professional people” as the miners, the dockers and the railwaymen (Your Britain, Laura Beers). When Labour published their manifesto, it concluded with a  ‘Call to All Progressives’ to support them this time.

In the wake of Labour’s landslide victory, much attention has been focussed on the party’s ‘radical’ agenda – of nationalising industry, creating the NHS and implementing the findings of the Beveridge Report. But it was the issue of housing – one that cut across all classes in 1945 – that put them on course for power. 3.75 million homes had been damaged or destroyed by the Blitz. Opinion polls, although in their infancy, found this to be the British people’s top concern (England Arise, Fielding et al).

At a Labour rally in Brentford, Ernie Bevin explained why housing was the key to post-war reconstruction: “There have been three million marriages in this war and not 10 per cent of those young people have homes”. In contrast, Churchill was heckled at Walthamstow Stadium when he tried to defend the much-derided level of house building being undertaken in the private sector. while Churchill warned that Labour’s plans were not achievable, Bevin exclaimed that if any cartels stood in his way: “I would give the Ministry of Works exactly the same powers as the Minister of Supply had in the war”.

Few, however, expected the electorate to turn on Mr Churchill as a result. In a sign of their growing electoral maturity, Labour understood that Churchill was personally more popular than the Conservative Party, with memories of pre-war unemployment  etched on voters’ minds. Rather than attempting to de-legitimise Churchill’s character, Labour simply sought to contrast him with the party he represented.

Attlee put it to the people that he would “be the last man to deny [Churchill’s] great services in the German War” before adding “It is quite another thing that to secure his services we must saddle ourselves with a Conservative Government” (Tories Expect Safe Majority: British Election Prospects, The Times of India, Jul 3, 1945). In speech after speech, Labour figures were at pains to praise Churchill’s war efforts, but followed this by expressing sorrow at what the campaign – and the Conservative Party – had done to him. When Herbert Morrison fought back, he emphasised: “I don’t want to be unkind to him. I say that the country is indebted to him for capable leadership, but he might return the compliment”.

In praising Churchill, Labour pitched their arguments to where the mood of the country was. Their reasonableness contrasted with Churchill’s reactionary interventions and warnings of ‘some kind of Gestapo’ threat. In response, Attlee rationally argued that Labour now reflected ‘all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life”. It was a class-less pitch on the grounds of efficiency – not ideology – to an electorate suspicious of the language of revolution.

The magnitude of Labour’s victory surprised everybody. When the Commons met for the first time following the landslide, excitable Labour MPs launched into an emotional rendition of the Red Flag. But the architect of Labour’s ‘quiet revolution’, Herbert Morrison, was not one of them. He later recalled in his autobiography that he was ‘mildly disturbed’ at the flouting of parliamentary conventions. But Morrison needn’t have worried. Two weeks after the election, the New York Times reported back to a concerned America about the impact of the new regime. To great surprise, he announced that the country had not undergone a socialist revolution: “The Labour Party has reached a sober maturity” he concluded, “that only carping diehards could now challenge”.

In the seventy five years since, all Labour leaders have projected their interpretation of the ‘Spirit of 45’ on to themselves. Few, however, have managed to convince the electorate that their policies are as reasonable as Attlee’s.

As Labour again talk of a ‘1945 moment’ arising in the aftermath of COVID, it remains to be seen what lessons this generation have learned from the party’s finest hour.

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