The 1945 British General Election

The 1945 general election saw a shock result in the history of British politics. Winston Churchill, wartime hero and assumed winner, was defeated by a landslide victory for Clement Atlee’s Labour Party. Why, then, did Churchill’s seemingly easy victory not occur?

The scale of the defeat for the Conservatives is seen in the figures. Clement Atlee’s Labour secured 11,995,152 votes to the Conservative’s 9,988,306,[1] with these votes coming from a British electorate of 33,240,30.[2] Labour had won 393 seats with a majority of 183 within the House of Commons.[3] The 1945 election was the first since November of 1935, and although it was held in July, the results were announced three weeks later in order to count the votes of those serving abroad.[4]

Following the Second World War, Winston Churchill was immensely popular. This is unsurprising as he was viewed as the guardian that had ensured wartime victory and the safety of the British people. His popularity meant that his approval rating did not fall below 78% between 1940-45, and in some cases rising to 83%.[5] The Conservatives were therefore confident that this would result in his re-election in the 1945 election as people would surely want the winner of the war to guide them through the years that followed. However, this turned out not to be the case, and the Conservative Party essentially did not campaign enough as they rested to greatly on Churchill. Many people in Britain felt as though Churchill’s qualities and politics would not fit peacetime as his pre-occupation had been almost entirely on war victory, and party politics would often fall to a secondary position.[6] The end of war deprived Churchill of his key motivation and drive, and this was not viewed favourably in a country healing from war and craving positive momentum moving forward to recovery. Furthermore, Churchill had also used his spotlight during the election campaign to promise to finish the war in Japan, which was once again bringing the focus to conflict in a country craving peace. This is even more evident when viewed in contrast to Labour’s campaign, which was based heavily around ensuring their policies and intentions were known. They made clear that the unemployment and bleakness of the 1930s was down to the Conservatives, as was the failure to re-arm Britain quickly enough, appeasing Hitler and failing to implement necessary and essential social reforms.[7]

This reference to social reform is essential to note. Labour made the promise of employment, housing, medical services for all and social reform central to their campaign. This was popular amongst voters, as it mirrored the manifesto of the same nature written in the 1942 Beveridge Report. Beveridge set out conditions he felt required change and reform in Britain in order to ensue social reform in a wide manner of sectors, and was well received amongst the electorate. Labour, for the most part, embraced the report, whilst the Conservatives did not. This was a point remembered by the voters. Churchill could have used the Beveridge report for his own popularity and success, but instead chose to highlight the unrealistic nature of Labour’s reforms and insisted should change happen, this was to be achieved privately and not by government.[8]

Essentially, the 1945 election can be understood to have been a huge win for the Labour Party. Not only had they ran their own successful campaign, but were also able to capitalise on the failings and inadequacies of the Conservatives relying greatly on Winston Churchill.

Image retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/12/attlee-and-churchill-leaders-united-through-war. (PA Archive).


[1] UK Political Info. (2020). 1945 General Election Results Summary. Retrieved from http://www.ukpolitical.info/1945.htm.

[2] UK Political Info. (2020).

[3] BBC (Dr Paul Addison). (2011). Why Churchill Lost in 1945. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/election_01.shtml.

[4] Imperial War Museums (Rebecca Harding). (2018). How Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party Lost the 1945 Election. Retrieved from https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-winston-churchill-and-the-conservative-party-lost-the-1945-election.

[5] BBC (Dr Paul Addison). (2011).

[6] BBC (Dr Paul Addison). (2011).

[7] BBC (Dr Paul Addison). (2011).

[8] Imperial War Museums (Rebecca Harding). (2018).

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