The Election of 1945

The 1945 election marked a watershed in British history. The successful Conservative wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, was defeated by Clement Attlee's Labour Party.

Attlee's landslide victory ushered in the welfare state and the National Health Service. The commanding heights of the British economy were nationalised. India was granted independence.

Attlee's government changed the face of British society, creating a new social consensus that was to remain largely unchanged until 1979.


The national government set up by Winston Churchill in 1940 to see Britain through the Second World War came to an end on 23 May 1945. With the Allied victory in Europe only two weeks old, the Labour Party was anxious to return to politics as usual and fight a general election. Churchill was unwilling to dissolve Parliament before the close of the war in the Pacific, but he had little choice when his coalition partners made clear their intentions to go to the country as soon as possible.

The 1945 election was the first to be fought in Britain for ten years. The previous decade had seen massive change and during the war a new left-leaning consensus had gradually developed within Britain, with the Beveridge report at its heart. The report, published in December 1942, recommended a comprehensive welfare state and National Health Service. Its proposals enjoyed widespread support throughout the country but received only lukewarm support from Churchill and the Conservative Party. The nation had undergone the horrors of war and expected to enjoy the fruits of victory.

The position of the Labour Party changed dramatically during the war. Churchill had given Labour several key ministries within the national government, including the Ministry of Labour (Ernest Bevin) and the Home Office (Herbert Morrison). Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, was made Churchill's Deputy Prime Minister. The effect was to give Labour a wealth of experience in office which was to prove invaluable when the party went to the country.


Most observers, including the Soviet leader Stalin, believed the Tories would win, despite the publication of opinion polls that showed Labour six points ahead of the Conservatives. Churchill had been an incredibly popular and successful war leader and few could imagine that the electorate would turn against him. Although the Conservatives appeared to be in a very strong position as they entered the election campaign, to many voters they remained the party of appeasement, unemployment and the means test.

The Conservatives' appeal to the nation under the slogan "Vote National - Help him finish the job" was based around Churchill's personal popularity and as such found itself out of step with the public's new mood. Churchill and Tory media mogul Lord Beaverbrook based much of their campaign rhetoric on the dangers posed to democratic institutions by Labour's proposals for a welfare state and the nationalisation of key industries. Churchill even went as far as to stay that if Labour were elected it would need to "fall back on some kind of Gestapo" to implement its policies. Ironically the Conservative manifesto A Declaration of Policy to the Electors offered many policies similar to those of Labour.

Attlee leaped on Churchill's "Gestapo" remark and took the opportunity to remind voters that Churchill the wartime leader had been replaced by Churchill the leader of the Conservative Party, remarking, "I thank him for having disillusioned them so thoroughly."

The Labour manifesto, Let us Face the Future Together, offered the nation a radical departure from the past, including comprehensive social security, a national health service and the nationalisation of major industries.

The Result

When Labour's victory was announced on 26 July 1945 (three weeks after polling day to enable those overseas in the forces to vote) it took the country, Attlee included, by surprise. With 48 per cent of the vote, Labour gained a Parliamentary majority of 146 seats, the largest in post-war British history. The swing of 12 points to Labour was unprecedented (and remains a record swing at post-war elections). The vote represented more a rejection of the Conservative Party than of Winston Churchill's performance as a war-leader. (Churchill was another astounded at the result).

Many first-time voters voted Labour as did those in the forces. Labour's success was down to its ability to persuade the voters that only it was capable of building the post-war world that the majority of the population desired. Churchill's refusal to embrace the Beveridge Report whole-heartedly cost him dearly as did the public's perception that he was a "man of war" and not a suitable peacetime leader.

Clement Attlee The Labour Leader Conservative numbers in the House of Commons dropped from 387 to 197. The Liberal Party too fared badly. The Liberal leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, lost his seat and the Liberal Party was reduced to just 12 seats. Several Government ministers lost their seats, including Leo Amery and the future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, George Thomas and Michael Foot were all among the mass of new Labour faces entering Parliament for the first time.