Labour's 1945 landslide and beyond

Barbara Humphries continues her series on the history of the Labour Party. 1945 marked a watershed for Labour and for British society. The Labour Party won an historic victory, with a 146-seat majority over all other parties. It was won on the most radical election manifesto, before or since. This article was originally published in Socialist Appeal, issue 50 April 1997.

1945 marked a watershed for the Labour Party and for British society. The Labour Party won an historic victory, with a 146-seat majority over all other parties. It was won on the most radical election manifesto, before or since.

'Let us face the future' was Labour's famous election manifesto. The main plank of the programme was 'jobs for air -a policy which was to involve restoring industry to full capacity, raising consumption by raising wages, planned investment via a National Investment Board and public ownership of key industries such as the mines. Labour was able to use wartime controls which had not yet been swept away, to implement price controls and priorities, such as homes before mansions. It read

"The nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation and re-equipment of its homes, factories and machinery, its schools and services. All the parties say it -only Labour means it. "Its preamble asserted that "Labour is a socialist party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose is the establishment of a socialist commonwealth of Great Britain. " There were no fears about the word 'socialism' in those days. Voters were told that they had a choice -the Conservative Party and private economic interest or the Labour Party allied with the great trade union and cooperative movements standing for the wise organisation and use of the economic assets of the nation for the public good.

Support for the Labour Party was overwhelming amongst working class people, in spite of the fact that the Party machine had all but collapsed during the war years. There was a feeling that there could be no return to the 1930s and the means test. Also the war had radicalised the population. During the war the troops had been subject to political education from the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Discussion in rank and file organisations such as the Cairo Parliament had shown the potential support for radical ideas. On the home front Shelter Committees had been another form of organisation. The planning and conscription of wealth had been popular ideas, and trade unions had been involved in Joint Production Committees which had been able to jump on employers for making too much profit. With the opening of the

Second Front the Soviet Union and the Communist Party had gained respectability, the latter having over 2,000 factory branches and peaked in membership. The Common Wealth Party led by Richard Acland gained 12,000 members by opposing the participation of Labour in the wartime coalition government. Throughout Europe, notably in Greece, and Yugoslavia, Communist Party backed resistance movements had played a decisive role in the defeat of the Nazis.

In this situation there was no gratitude for Winston Churchill, as war leader, who fought a vitriolic campaign against Labour, saying that the Gestapo would be at your door if Labour won. The Tories with their record of mass unemployment, class war and poverty would and could not head the post-war reconstruction. Even sections of the ruling class saw that a Labour Government was necessary to modernise British capitalism.

Red Flag

When Parliament was reassembled after the 1945 election, Labour MPs rose to sing the Red Flag, much to the horror of the Tories. Many of the MPs were new, and lacking in political experience. An increasing number were not from trade union backgrounds. However they were in the main conviction politicians they were out to convert, not to respond to the media. There was no central Party organisation or the 'Millbank Tendency'to have control over them.

In the main Labour's programme was carried out. The National Health Service was set up. One and a half million housing units were built between 1945 and 1951. 20% of the economy was nationalised. Living standards improved. Before the war unemployment had stood at 11.6% nationally. After 1945 it did not rise above 2%. Average working hours fell to 46.3 per week. The government publication 'Social trends' estimated that the amount of money which could be spent on leisure rose to 20% of average incomes.

Was this however the new Jerusalem? Many of the reforms carried out by Labour were needed to reconstruct capitalist society. Other capitalist states, nationalised industry and introduced welfare programmes. It was unlikely however that the Tories would have been prepared to carry out these reforms. 86 Tories voted against the National Health Service in committee. Much more could have been achieved, given the support for socialism in 1945. Reforms carried out by the Labour Government never had support from the Tories, many have just bided their time to get them reversed. Marxists warned in 1948 that when capitalism went into recession these reforms could be taken away. Given the strength of the working class movement in Britain this took 40-50 years, but it is happening nevertheless. The former owners of nationalised industries were given massive compensation for industries which they had ruined. Many of them took this money out of the country. There was no workers' control in the nationalised industries, part of Labour's programme which had been abandoned. Ex-owners sat on the boards.

Britain remained a class divided society. Working class leisure time was spent on beer, dogs and cinemas. The middle class almost exclusively continued to benefit exclusively from higher education, and attendance at the theatre, the opera and so on. In fact the increasing capitalist domination of the leisure industry meant that the tradition of self-education encouraged by the labour movement before the war tended to die out. This was a blow for all those whose vision of socialism contained a better quality of life for all. The Tories finally made a comeback, organising open air meetings to mobilise middle class opposition to 'austerity' and 'drab socialism', particularly in relation to the coal shortage of 1947. Big business mounted campaigns against nationalisation of steel, road haulage and sugar.


What direction was Labour to take? By 1949 the American loan, as part of the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe had run out and a balance of payments crisis followed. Stafford Cripps, Minister of Economic Affairs proposed an austerity budget including a 'profit and pay standstill'. ' Cuts were made in all proposed social expenditure projections including cuts in food subsidies. Finally inroads were imposed on the free National Health Service by introducing charges for spectacles and dental treatment. The latter two measures caused the resignation of two left-wingers from the Cabinet, Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson. At the same time defence spending increased. This was due to a change in foreign policy and the start of the Cold War. The division of the world into Soviet and US camps by Stalin and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference signified the end of any deals with the Stalinist regimes. Britain under a Labour Government was pulled firmly into the US camp and did the bidding for US foreign policy. This change of policy had started with the dispatch of British troops into Athens in 1944 to fight against former allies the Greek resistance movement, ELAS and to impose an unpopular exiled king on the Greek people. This provoked the Greek civil war and the American troops finally went in to finish the job off. Later British troops were sent to fight the 'communists' in Malaysia and Korea. Labour foreign minister Ernest Bevin played a part in the setting up of NA TO. This rabid 'anti-communist' foreign policy was matched at home with a witch-hunt atmosphere within the ranks of the labour movement, whereby a proscribed list was set by Labour Party head office, and any supporter of a Communist Party 'front organisation' or sympathiser was under the threat of expulsion from the Party. Communists were banned from holding office in the Transport and General Workers Union under the right wing leadership of Deakin.

The government was running out of steam, having carried out its programme of reforms, it was carried along by the needs of British capitalism. There was little opposition from within the Labour Party itself except from the small 'Keep Left' group which had the support of 15 MPs. It was itself split on the Korean War. However it mounted a semi successful campaign on the issue of conscription, reducing the conscription period demanded by NATO for intervention in the Korean War. Indeed former left-wingers from the 1930s such as Stafford Cripps were in the Cabinet. The left-wing journal Tribune ingratiated itself with Transport House. There was little opposition from the trade unions even to the voluntary wage freeze. However this was due to the fact that real wages were rising. The level of strikes was lower than in wartime. Wartime legislation was kept on the books and used against dockers who were jailed for striking and troops were used to break a dispute. In this situation the

Tories were able to gain the initiative. The Keep Left programme of rolling forward with more nationalisation was rejected. Hence the labour leadership had little left to offer. No further nationalisation was proposed in the 1950 or 1951 elections. The sugar industry mounted a huge 'Mr Cube' anti- nationalisation crusade, and the Tories succeeded in denationalising steel after 1951.

1951 election

The Tories won the autumn 1951 election, although the Labour vote remained high at 14 million. In 1950 Labour had received 48.8% of the vote, this went up to 55% in the next local elections. But Labour was to be out of office until 1964, another 13 years. In 1955 the Tories increased their vote as Macmillan won the election on the slogan 'You've never had it so good.' The Tories did not dismantle the welfare state, most industries nationalised by Labour stayed in public hands, and full employment

remained. The post-war boom remained the key to these developments. With full employment the welfare state could be afforded. For a whole generation life was getting better -and everyone believed that this would last forever. This had an impact on the labour movement. For some 1945 had been a mission accomplished, for others it had been a lost opportunity. For the Labour leadership (Atlee had now been replaced by Hugh Gaitskell) there was little left to do. The 'mixed economy' was an accepted fact. When Anthony Crosland wrote 'The future of socialism' in the 1960s he argued that the days of class struggle were over. Unemployment and poverty would never return. The main objective of socialists was to improve the quality of life - more cafes on the South Bank for instance.

The membership of the Labour Party peaked at 1 million members after 1952 ('Labour's high noon} and then started to drop. That is not to say that the 1950s were devoid of political activity on the left -the Bevanites organised successful brains

trusts mainly on the question of foreign policy which brought them into conflict with the Labour leadership. The-Socialist Fellowship organisation had attracted up to 30,000 members in 1948-49 but was proscribed in 1954. By 1957 the number of strikes was on the increase with strikes in the mines, docks and the car plants. Under Gaitskell the Labour Party swung to the right. Clause 4, Part 4 was attacked, although defended successfully by the trade union movement. Gaitskell also considered breaking the trade union links but again was defeated. Many thought that there was little to choose between the parties. The level of activity within the Labour Party declined, partly through disappointment, partly through apathy due to the ever-increasing standard of living. Activists turned to groups such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 caused havoc in the Stalinist parties and further weakened their credibility as a force on the left. In the absence of an alternative the right wing in the labour movement was able to use this to build UP their position.


The general election campaign of 1964 had some similarities with that of 1997. The Tories had been in for years, and were tarred with sleaze and corruption from the Profumo scandal. Harold Wilson now leader of the Labour Party appeared dynamic. The theme of Labour's election campaign was 'modernisation' -a classless, apolitical theme running through Labour's 1945, 1964 and 1997 election campaigns. This was to impress the British ruling class who were tired of the Tories. In 1945 however the Labour leadership could combine this with carrying the support of its socialist rank and file as this modernisation contained measures which had long been Labour Party policy such as nationalisation. In 1964 there was little nationalisation on offer. It was 'the white heat of the technological revolution. The commanding heights were not to be nationalised but controlled by planning agreements, and 'the old grouse moor mentality' of Tory Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was to be done away with. Labour's programmes contained reforms which were popular such as the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme, widows pensions, and comprehensive education. But even these were 'modern' as much as they were socialist measures.

Comprehensive education was to enable children from working class backgrounds to achieve their full potential as members of a skilled workforce which Britain needed to compete.

The beginning of Harold Wilson's government saw a run on the pound and he was approached by the governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cromer and told that increasing child benefits was out. Instead of appealing to his supporters, Wilson abandoned his programme of social reform. The latter years of the Wilson government were dominated by disputes with the trade union movement. The government commissioned the Donovan Commission on the trade unions aimed at curbing rank and file militancy. The Minister for Labour, Barbara Castle took this on board and introduced 'In place of strife' which was abandoned after pressure from the unions. Further conflict with the unions was initiated by the wage freeze introduced by the government. By the end of the 19605 Labour was not seen as a radical force for changing society. There seemed to be little to choose between the Tories and Labour. Youth took to single-issue campaigns, anti-apartheid, squatters movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. It was left to pressure groups like Shelter to show to the nation that poverty and homelessness were still around. However for most the economy was still granting them the affluence of the post-war boom. The 19705 were to change all that.

The election of the Tories in 1970 had a dramatic impact on the labour movement. It coincided with the end of the post war boom and the beginning of mass unemployment. Unemployment rose to halt a million, unprecedented since the 19305. The Heath Government was pledged to attack the trades unions by the establishment of an Industrial Relations Act. The imprisoning of 5 dockers under these legislation led to a near general strike situation as thousands of workers downed tools and walked out. From this day onwards the Act was put on ice. But the main confrontation was between the government and the miners. A second miners' strike called in the winter of 1973/74 led the Heath Government to have to implement power cuts and a three day week in industry. The labour movement rallied around the miners' pay campaign. A general election was called by the Prime Minister Ted Heath on the issue 'who runs the country-the government or the unions?' The Labour Party won the election in February 1974, and went on to increase its majority in the second general election in October 1974.


In the ten years since 1964 the political scene had changed dramatically. Class struggle not seen since the 1920s was back on the agenda. The radicalisation of the trade unions also had an impact on the ranks of the Labour Party. Socialist ideas were discussed and supported within the Party .The level of activity increased. The move to the left in the Party carried on under a Labour Government. The Labour Government settled the dispute with the miners and went on to construct a 'Social contract' with the trade unions. This social contract was to guarantee social expenditure in return for voluntary pay restraint. The unions' commitment to this was to last through 3 phases, right up until 1979 and there was a temporary lull in industrial militancy. However the Labour Party had taken office at a time of crisis. The International Monetary Fund demanded that the Chancellor of the Exchequer impose substantial cuts in public spending. This revived memories of 1929/31. Would the Labour Party split again and a national government be formed? Marxists in the party warned of this danger. The cuts radicalised public sector trade unionists, thousands of whom marched on the streets in the winter of 1976. It also brought condemnation within the Labour Party itself, as General Management Committees up and down the country passed resolutions criticising the cuts and calling for a socialist planned economy. For the first time for decades it was possible to get conference resolutions calling for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy passed. The Labour Party Young Socialists spear- headed this movement to the left in the Party and received tremendous support amongst party activists. The ideas of Marxism gained support within the Party.

After the unions rejected Phase 4 of the government's pay policy, the strategy of the Labour Government collapsed and it was defeated in the general election of 1979. By that time, unemployment had risen to over a mil/ion and was continuing to rise. The incoming Conservative government led by Thatcher was elected on a programme of trade union 'reform', monetarism and cuts in the welfare state. For the first few years this heightened the class struggle and the Labour Party continued to move to the left. The Party now led by former left-winger Michael Foot, organised three demonstrations against unemployment. Tony Benn came within a percentage of the vote of becoming deputy leader of the Party, against right-winger Denis Healy. The Tories second election victory in 1983, against a background of the Falklands crisis and an economic turning of the tide (the beginning of the mid 1980s boom unnoticed at the time!) was to reverse that process.


The Tory governments of Thatcher and Major carried out what was thought to be impossible by the Labour leadership and also by some sections of the Tory Party. Monetarism was not for instance popular with the Confederation of British Industry! However much of the 1945 reforms have been dismantled. Industries have been denationalised, services privatised, trade union rights emasculated and the welfare state severely undermined. How has this come about? Marxists in the Labour Party in 1945-1951 warned that the 1945 Labour Government's reforms were not safe under capitalism. Rabid right-wingers of the monetarist school could use the weaknesses- such as the bureaucracy in the nationalised industries-as a means of mobilising popular support for privatisation. Even so, it has not been easy for the Tories to do this. Their programme was not supported by the majority of the British people, and it has been impossible to fully dismantle the National Health Service. A series of serious defeats for the labour movement such as the miners’ strike of 1984/85 boosted the confidence of the Tories. Also the speculative boom of the mid 1980s which meant that real wages rose for those in work, and house prices rose even faster, masked for many workers the scale of the attack which had taken place on workers' rights in the workplace and the level of the insecurity now faced. Now in the 1990s the full reality has been revealed – the Tories have taken us back to the 19th century in terms of casual labour force and the rolling back of welfare state. This is why they now face defeat.


The prospect facing an incoming Labour Government is that the majority of the electorate would like to see this reversed. However the Labour Party is not committed to renationalising a single industry. Many of the Tory counter-reforms in health, education and the workplace will stay intact under a government led by Tony Blair. But what is the alternative? There are no soft options. The right wing leadership of the labour movement has always acted as an agent of the ruling class when in office. When it was possible to grant reforms, as in 1945-51, by carrying out some of Labour's ideals it was relatively easy for the membership and the leadership to be reconciled. In the present time of crisis this is not the case. Labour will immediately face potential opposition from a trade union movement with which it is historically and intrinsically linked.

The gains of 1945 have been severely knocked back. Labour's organisational machine which was built on socialist policies and the 'natural' support of millions of workers who formed their political ideas in the 1930s and after cannot any longer be taken for granted. Workers can only learn from their own experiences. The lessons of the history of the labour movement have to be retained by Marxists for future generations. At the beginning of the 20th century social- ism was seen as a new movement, which shaped the politics of the century. However it has been led up the blind allies of both reformism and Stalinism. In both these cases they have been seen not only as compromises or distortions of socialist policies, but also they have not prevented the return of capitalist counter-reform. In the struggle to save the labour movement in the years ahead, it is 'back to basics' in the form of the socialist ideas on which the movement was originally founded.

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