Why did Labour win the 1945 election and lose in the 1951 election?

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Why did Labour win the 1945 election and lose in the 1951 election?

The question as to why Labour won the 1945 election has been the source of much in depth study since the period. To gain an understanding of the election one must study the context surrounding the election. The war had undoubtedly played a major role in the elections, being seen as a “people's war” it broke down social boundaries and caused a shift to the left. The result of the election caused much surprise. 20th century British politics had been dominated by the conservatives, and Labour had never formed a workable majority before 1945. The shock the election caused was comparable to the results of the 1906 and 1979 elections, and would have a profound impact on how the country was rebuilt in the post-war period. Labour's promises of social reforms won them many votes, however it was these promises which led to their failure in 1951, when many people believed that the promises hadn't been delivered. In 1945 Labour had won 11.99m (47.8%) of the vote, and went on to attain 13.95m (48.8%) of the vote in 51. They had beaten the Conservatives by a clear 8% however in 51 they only had a 0.8% lead on the votes, as to why they didn't win after getting more votes one has to examine the first past the post system. Labour's achievements, or rather what they did not achieve, can be linked as to why they lost: they had arguably successfully set up a welfare state but had also induced an economic crisis.

Conservative pre-war blunders played a key role in Labour's victory due to the electorate remembering these mistakes. Appeasement wasn't, at the time, a hugely contentious issue however after the war many people believed this was a large reason for the war and the Conservatives were blamed. Pre-war Conservatives were labelled “Guilty Men” by Labour, this was very influential in winning over public opinion for Labour – who presented themselves as the only party able to prevent another war.  Also during the 1930s Britain suffered the great depression, which weakened the Conservatives’ reputation considerably due to their domination of the National Government. This is considered an important factor in Labour's victory by many historians “Support for Labour in 1945 represented above all a reaction against pre-war Conservatism” argues Adelman. However Pearce concludes that “The pre-war period was significant because, during the war, it was reinterpreted”. Both clearly agree that the pre-war period was significant, however they differ on why it was significant. Pearce's reinterpretation argument makes the most sense  because policies like appeasement were relatively popular at the time. Indeed, after signing the Munich Agreement, Chamberlain was heralded as a hero: 'saving' the country from another bloody war. Labour's election record in the 1930s was poor, as they were disorganised and divided. Divisions over appeasement, foreign policy and rearmament deeply weakened Labour. This divided party had stood no chance against the organised, well-funded Conservatives. However by 1945 Labour was a strong, organised and well respected party, whilst the Conservatives were weakened by the war and internal splits. A defeated conservative MP at the time, Macmillan, claimed that “It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election, it was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain”. Chamberlain's actions before the war had indeed lost the Conservatives much respect and had made them look weak to many people who saw Labour as the only reliable alternative. Evidently, the  Conservatives were punished in 1945, when they were lucky to not have been in 1935 and, arguably, if elections had taken place in 1940, Labour may have won.

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The war had played a crucial role in Labour’s 1945 victory, by bringing them into the public eye - they were left effectively to their own devices to rule the homefront as Churchill struggled on with the war effort. Atlee became the deputy Prime Minister during the war. In addition, Morrison became Home Secretary and Bevin Minister of Labour and National Service. Positions like these allowed the Labour MPs to prove that they were, in fact, very skilled and also gave them invaluable experience. Before the war, Labour were all too often seen as inexperienced and even unpatriotic due ...

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