George Hepburn: In 1945 they knew what they were voting for. Do we know now?

Journal columnist George Hepburn on the lessons Labour can still learn from a stunning victory 70 years ago Mr. Attlee, the Prime Minister, making a speech during the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough 1951 On left is Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison
Mr. Attlee, the Prime Minister, making a speech during the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough 1951 On left is Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison

I can remember exactly what I was doing on the morning of Winston Churchill’s funeral. The fiftieth anniversary was celebrated a fortnight ago. Shops were closed and union jacks were hung in respect for a man then regaled as a national hero.

If the questionable practice of marking these anniversaries continues to gather pace, the great Labour party victory in the 1945 general election, which I was not around to remember, will be recalled in July. Here is a quick reminder to get you primed for the occasion. It ought to be required reading for anyone planning a general election strategy.

With the end of the Second World War in sight, the partners in the coalition could not wait to go their own ways. The election was held two months after V E Day. Because of the war, it was the first general election in ten years. The result was delayed in order for votes from troops still abroad to be counted and also, curiously, for the mill workers to return after wakes week.

The Labour Party won an unexpected landslide victory and formed a majority government for the first time in its history. Only the Liberal victory in 1906 and the Labour victory in 1997 compare.

The result was a great shock to Winston Churchill. The historian A J P Taylor explains that the people cheered Churchill, the great war leader, but voted for Clement Attlee, a seemingly lacklustre character with an uncanny resemblance to Captain Mainwaring.

The electorate was won over by the commitment to “winning the peace” and remembered the Conservatives’ failure to tackle unemployment or solve the housing crisis before the war. Although both parties signed up to the recommendations of the Beveridge report to introduce social security, only Labour did so wholeheartedly.

The views of John Boot, third generation head of the family business based in Nottingham, are not known. The Boots were major benefactors to the local community. But the business leaders of the day would have feared ‘catastrophe’ if Labour won the election and went on to nationalise “the commanding heights of the economy”.

In fact, the mine owners were generously compensated and Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health, went to great lengths to persuade the medical profession to join the national health service in 1948. Some said he conceded too much.

So what lessons can we learn from history? The personality of the party leader did not seem to matter in those far off days – though there is a view that Churchill’s cigar smoking pomposity was not that popular with the troops.

Attlee became a great prime minister because of his skill in holding his team together. He was voted the most successful prime minister of the century by historians on 2004. The post war government achieved a political consensus based on Keynesian economics that was the order of the day until Mrs Thatcher came along.

It may seem unconceivable nowadays, but in 1945 policies won elections not people. The manifesto stated clearly that Labour was proud to be socialist. It heralded a programme of economic and social reform that left the Labour leaders worn out and exhausted five years later.

Seventy years on, what would be the equivalent planks in the manifesto? A brave left wing party would introduce the living wage and reform the banking system. It would stand up for welfare and give power back to local authorities. It might scrap trident too.

In those days the manifesto mattered. It was clear what you were voting for. Nowadays, political parties sit on the fence and try to please everyone. Voters are left to second guess what their favoured party might actually do in power.

Any left wing party worth its salt will be opposed by the press and by business. It was the same in 1945. The Daily Mirror published a cartoon on election day in 1945 of a weary soldier urging the public not to lose the peace but elsewhere the Beaverbrook press was in Churchill’s pocket.

A party that is being shouted down may just be getting it right. Beware the kind of platitudes that we have heard from Lord Digby Jones who said this week that ‘wealth creation’ is a universal good that will save the NHS.

Wealth has replaced profit in the lexicon. The real question is how wealth is used, taxed and distributed. Remember that greater equality leads to economic growth, as Obama has now realised, and that the average company chief executive earns in three days what the average worker earns in a year.

Are we to live forever in a kind of purgatory of coalition government, in which no one will have the courage to stand and say what they would really do for fear of alienating the middle ground of the electorate?

In 1945, there was an overwhelming cry for change that is hard to find with less than one hundred days to go to polling day. I await the party manifestos with baited breath in the hope that one of them will inspire me.


The world has seemed a more dangerous place with blood-curdling calls to avenge the ghastly execution of the Jordanian pilot. Doesn’t the world realise that jihadist atrocities are designed to provoke just such retaliation and unleash an unending war that only one side is fanatical enough to win.

The United Sates talks of sending ‘defensive’ arms to the Ukraine and a Nato rapid reaction force deploys on the border. Pardon me, but did I miss the parliamentary debate on a potential use of our forces in the Ukraine?

Full marks then Angela Merkel and François Hollande in their attempts to negotiate a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. It remains to be seen if they will be successful but diplomacy must be better than war mongering. We should not expect too much from the Prince of Wales as he tours the Middle East this week. Much better to dispatch Merkel and Hollande without more ado.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer