The 1945 British General Election was held in the aftermath of the Allied victory in Europe and the result was a huge shock to wartime leader, Winston Churchill. For this general election, the Conservatives, led by Churchill, had played on his inspirational wartime leadership skills – the man who had taken the country through the threat of defeat and invasion, heavy bombing and ultimately to victory. Winston Churchill had world-wide fame and respect. The Conservative's major opponent, the Labour Party, was led by Clement Attlee – reasonably well known in this country but not outside of it.
The election date was set for July 5th 1945 and campaigning started on June 4th. The result was not known until July 26th as there were many servicemen stationed abroad who had the right to vote but the sheer logistics of getting their results back to London held everything up.
Labour got 393 seats in Parliament, the Conservatives 208 seats and the Liberals 12 seats. Therefore, the Labour Party had a majority of 173 over both opposition parties. By any standards, this was an overwhelming electoral victory for Labour – and a severe defeat for the Conservatives.
Why was Churchill rejected after his wartime leadership? Why were the Conservatives so badly defeated?
Many people believe that the election campaign for a post-war government actually started in 1942 with the publication of the Beveridge Report. The Labour Party was very much associated with the report with its slogan "Freedom From Want". The Conservatives were less associated with the report and by 1945 were still associated with those who did well out of society. The chronic social ills of Britain in the 1930’s had been put to one side as the country pulled together during the war with one common enemy. Towards the end of the war and immediately after it, these social ills took political precedence again.
"I remember very well indeed the numbers of men home on leave who came on to (the election) platforms in their uniforms, quite against regulations, who were saying they did not want to resume civilian life under the conditions they had had before they went into the services. There’s no doubt about this impact of life in the 30’s upon these young men."
Lord Robens speaking in 1970. He was elected as a Labour MP in 1945.
The failure of Churchill had also been linked to his approach to the Labour Party during the campaign. Churchill unfavourably compared the Labour Party to the fascist states in Europe that had just been defeated. To move to a socialist state, Churchill claimed – disastrously – that the Labour Party would have to move to some form of Gestapo-state. To associate the Labour Party with the Nazi Secret Police offended many fair-minded people as by June/July 1945, much more was known by the general public about this organisation.
Conservative-supporting newspaper also played on this line. The "Daily Express" on June 5th headlined with "Gestapo in Britain if socialists win."
"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."
Churchill, June 4th,1945 in an election broadcast
After this speech Attlee said in an election broadcast:
"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."