A political history

Why did Churchill not win the 1945 general election?

The 1945 British General Election was held soon after the Allies won the Second World War in Europe. The result? 48.2% for Labour, compared to the Tories' 39.7%. This was translated to 394 seats in Parliament for Labour, while the Conservatives received only 196[1] - a massive electoral victory for Labour and at the same time, the Conservatives most terrible defeat. In addition to this, the Labour overwhelming victory was an enormous shock to Winston Churchill, probably one of the greatest wartime leaders; the man who managed to lead the country through the threat of defeat and invasion, the bombings and finally achieved victory.

In June 1944 Churchill was supporting that the Government should be changed after the war was over, since it had remained the same for too long.[2] (Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 31 October, 1944) The majority of the Conservatives were in favour of an early election, as described by Churchill. When, however, the war with Germany came to its end, on 8th May 1944, Churchill changed his mind. He decided that he wanted the Coalition government to continue until Japan was also defeated. He then proposed his idea to the Labour and the Liberal parties. Churchill wrote to Attlee: "It would give me great relief if you and your friends were found resolved to carry on with me until a decisive victory has been gained over Japan."[3] It was believed that it would take at least six months for Japan to be defeated, simply because no one was aware of the atomic bomb, the new massive destruction weapon of the United States of America, except Churchill. The Labour party's conference on 20th May 1945 examined the question, which was overwhelmingly rejected due to the fact that the Labour desired a general election to be held earlier than the six months.

Churchill finally called for a general election much earlier than the Labour had hoped. This is most probably due to his frustration as his plans were not accomplished. Churchill had an image of himself to be the greatest leader of the peace-time coalition and he expected that it would also continue even after the war was over. The Prime Minister resigned as leader of the Coalition government on May 23rd, and formed the 'Caretaker government' until the Parliament was dissolved in June 15th. The 5th July 1945 was the day set for the general election and campaigning started from June 4th. It is strongly arguable, though, that the year 1942 was actually the start of the election campaign for a post-war government, with Beveridge's Report and its slogan "Freedom from Want". Britain pulled itself together in the 1930s, due to the fear of the common enemy. Sadly, when World War Two seemed to be coming to its end, the social and political illness appeared again.

Churchill's failure has been linked to the Labour Party's approach during the campaign; he would keep comparing the Labour to the fascist states in Europe, who had just been destroyed, and he would claim that they had to move in a Gestapo-state. In an election broadcast in June 4th 1945 Churchill said: "There can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the state. Socialism is in its essence an attack not only upon British enterprise, but upon the right of the ordinary man or woman to breathe freely without having a harsh, clumsy tyrannical hand clasped across their mouth and nostrils. Labour would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance."[4] The "Daily Express", the Conservative-supporting newspaper followed Churchill's guideline. "Gestapo in Britain if socialists win." was the headline of the publication of June 5th. This association of Churchills' - the Labour to the Nazi Secret Police - offended some very fair-minded people. And then Atlee responded to Churchill: "How great was the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr. Churchill the party leader of the Conservatives."[5]

After Germany's defeat, national recovery was the primary concern for the public; housing, employment and economy settlements. Both, the Conservatives and the Labour made promises of plans to build housing. Labour, however, was more credible as far as it concerned housing, simply because they made a campaign issue of the fact that the Conservatives could not be trusted. They printed pamphlets that charged the 1918 Government as "guilty", which promised 'Homes for Heroes' for the servicemen, but achieved to build only 700 houses by 1919. Also, the pamphlet pointed out that the legislation for housing was not actually established until 1924, when Labour took power.[6]

In addition to the housing, Labour had a possible solution -and an advantage- on the unemployment issue. Labour believed that the only way to achieve full employment was their "Five-Year Plan" that would modernise the economy. Among others, it involved public planning of the economy, which would be achieved through nationalisation of certain industries and controls. Also, The "Five-Year Plan" suggested that the government would invest in the public industries and the well-being of all citizens would be considered in its decisions. This was a revolutionary suggestion; up until then, decision making power was only given to few rich people that owed or invested in companies. So, Labour introduced its plans for a National Investment Board (N.I.B) that would plan the economy. Labour wanted to continue rationing to prevent consumers' exploitation by monopolists and profiteers as well. Some industries were to be nationalised altogether and Labour strongly believed that this nationalisation, combined with government investment and controls could significantly contribute to a complete system of national planning that would ensure full employment and a competitive economy.

The Conservative's approached the subject from a different direction. They generally accepted what Labour was saying, but not that national planning was a failure. According to Churchill, "to find plenty of work with individual liberty to choose one's job, free enterprise must be given the chance and encouragement to plan ahead. Confidence in sound government, mutual cooperation between industry and the State, rather than control by the Statea lightening of the burdens of excessive taxationthese are the first essentials."[7] Instead of national planning to stifle private investment, Conservatives supported that what should be done was the decline of taxes and whatever was possible to encourage it. They argued that by private investment, innovation would be increased and the economy would be more varied.

Not surprisingly, the working classes seemed to be favouring Labour's policies. Contrary, the wealthy were in favour of the Conservatives, clearly because Labour's policies were aiming at limiting their power. For example, nationalisation would have as an impact the loss of business of the owners in the energy industry. It was the middle class that did not making a clear decision of what to vote for, since it really did not have certain motivations for choosing either party. The middle class had to be more "responsible" and chose the party that thought would renew the destroyed economy. Labour policies won over Conservatives' again. Searching the reasons for this decision, it turns out that they are very simple: Firstly, the Conservatives were in power for the past twenty years and during those two decades Britain was suffering from high percentages of unemployment. Thus, it was apparent, that the methods followed by the were ineffective.[8] The situation of the 1930s, mostly affected the younger voters who grew up in such difficult and confusing environment. Secondly, it was the Labour ministers that controlled domestic policies at this time[9] and as a result, national planning seemed to be a good choice for the economy. Consequently, the middle class repose its hopes on Labour.

Labour's advantages do not end here. The party had formed a strategy as well. The 1945 general election was five years late and Churchill's "National" Government should have stop excising since 1940. There was a war, therefore, and during the war period the two parties held an electoral truce. At that time, the Conservative's believed then that both parties could ceased all political activities in their constituencies. And so the Conservatives did; they even stopped discussing about any chance of forthcoming elections until 1945. Labour never thought so... They kept holding a party conference each year. In this way, they formed the party's policy and were preparing for the elections that would someday come!

As a result of the continuous meetings of the Labour, they were able to give a comprehensive explanation of all their policies to the British people. They had the ability of discussing their opinions and gave strong arguments, instead of offering a general denunciation of capitalism.[10] This is evident by the fact that when both parties were given ten radio broadcasts, Labour had ten different people there to speak, each about a different subject. In stark contrast, the Conservatives gave four to Churchill. This, however, was not done in purpose. The Conservatives used Churchill as the man that led Britain to a majestic victory against the Nazi Germany and was impossible in their minds that people would not vote for him. "Help him finish the job."[11] is the phrase someone would read on the posters that were put all over Britain.

Nevertheless, Churchill did not manage to get as much votes as the Conservatives hoped. An important reason for that was the fact that, while many liked Churchill himself, they were unwilling to vote for the Conservatives. People feared that Churchill would be forced to follow the party's policies rather than his own. Moreover, Churchill's "loss of prestige" was also the result of the distinction made many Conservative-supporting voters between Churchill as a war-leader and Churchill as a peace-time leader. Several polls show that people fully appreciated Churchill's work for foreign policy, but, at the same time, were concerned about how he would handle the country and the post-war problems.[12] Also, for servicemen and factory workers Churchill could not possibly be anything else than a war-time leader. Finally, Churchill was very well respected, but so were his opponents as well; Attlee and Beverage were in Churchill's National Government.

With Churchill staying behind, as described above, Labour got the greatest victory of its time. Labour got a huge percentage of the votes in Hackney, Stoke Newington, and Shoreditch, which were largely working class districts.[13] London's residential area was one of the areas with the largest swings to Labour, where housing would be a very important issue. Hitherto

Hitherto this essay has examined the question of why did Winston Churchill not win the 1945 general election. It should be wise, though, before summing up, to also have a glimpse at why Labour won the 1945 election. The answer to this question is the public opinion's "shift to the left". This shift to the left was mainly caused by the instability existing in the last fifteen years and by the success of wartime national planning. In addition, Martin Pugh's "The Daily Mirror and the Revival of the Labour 1935-1945" gives a detailed explanation of how the Labour and the "shift to the left" were indirectly supported by the press and how the press influenced the British society to vote in favour of Labour.[14] 84% was the shocking percentage of people that had made up their minds before the election even began, according to a Gallup poll.[15]

In conclusion, Labour's victory was definitely facilitated by their superiority in organisation and campaigning. They were tightly organised, united and knew how to campaign well both their candidates and policies. On the other hand, the Conservatives were disorganised and their campaign had only one angle: they constantly attack the "evils of socialism" (=the Labour). They did not propound their policies and that turned against them in the most humiliating way. The only certain thing is that the failure was not Churchill's; the man could not lead his party to victory all by himself. Mr. Churchill lost the election that seemed certain to win more than any other time. The weird fact is that people did not vote against Churchill so much as they voted in favour of the Labour Party and against the Conservative. Churchill was not as much responsible for his defeat as outside forces beyond his control were. A legend-man, gifted with intelligence that few had, was removed from his throne on the eve of his greatest victory.


  • Charlot, Monica, British Civilians in the Second World War (1939-1945) (Paris: Didier rudition CNED, 1996)
  • Childs, David, Britain since 1945: A Political History, 2nd edn (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith Ltd., 1992)
  • Churchill Winston and David Cannadine, Blood, toil, tears, and sweat: the speeches of Winston Churchill, ed. by David Cannadine (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989)
  • Colville, John, The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1987)
  • Giert, Martin, Randolph Spencer Churchill, Winston S. Churchill Never Despair, 1945-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988)
  • Kinnear, Michael, The British Voter: An Atlas and Survey since 1885 (London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd., 1981)
  • McCallum R. B. and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964)
  • Pugh, Martin, Britain Since 1789: A Concise History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999)
  • Pugh, Martin, 'The Daily Mirror and the Revival of Labour 1939-1945', Twentieth Century British History, 9:3 (1998), 420-438
  • Waller, Robert and Byron Criddle, The Almanac of British Politics (London: Routledge, 2007).
  1. Michael Kinnear, The British Voter (London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd., 1981), p. 55.
  2. Monica Charlot, British Civilians in the Second World War (1939-1945) ([n.p.]: Didier rudition, 1996), p. 165.
  3. Charlot, p. 166.
  4. Winston, Churchill and David Cannadine, Blood, toil, tears, and sweat: the speeches of Winston Churchill ([n.p.]: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), p. 273.
  5. David Childs, Britain since 1945: A Political History, 2nd edn (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith Ltd., 1992), p. 2.
  6. R.B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), p. 52.
  7. McCallum and Readman, p. 53.
  8. Childs, p. 13.
  9. Martin Pugh, Britain Since 1789 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 210.
  10. McCallum and Readman, p. 114.
  11. McCallum and Readman, p. 82a
  12. Childs, p. 12.
  13. Robert Waller, The Almanac of British Politics (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1983), p. 32-33.
  14. Martin Pugh, 'The Daily Mirror and the Revival of the Labout 1935-1945', Twentieth Century British History, 9:3 (1998), 420-438.
  15. McCallum and Readman, p. 269

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