The Attlee governments of 1945 to 1951 can be divided into four key sections. The first years, between 1945 and 1946, saw fervour for rapid reform in many areas of government. The year 1947 brought an abrupt end to the honeymoon, as the government was forced to shift focus from massive reform to crisis management in response to fuel and trade shortages. Between 1948 and the election year 1950, Labour was committed to a period of tighter spending and more austere demands placed upon citizens.Then, the second ministry saw a fractious Parliamentary party being further divided over the Korean War and the advancement of the National Health Service, leading up to a comfortable Tory win in the October 1951 election. Having been given such a considerable mandate to rebuild the country in 1945, the Attlee post-war government lost popular support considerably over the next six years.
There are several causes which can be established, first by looking at the events of the Attlee years and then isolating those points at which factors were working toward the party’s defeat.The 1945-1946 period of Labour government sought to address some key difficulties facing the nation following World War II. National income had fallen by a quarter during the War, meaning that many export markets needed to be recovered lest Britain face financial ruin. The population was also swelling, not to mention the return of service men and women from abroad, and the total number of properties in Britain had fallen by over 700,000 due to bomb damage.
Labour’s answer focused on working class interests.Food subsidies were sustained in...
order to negate inflation in living costs; levels of progressive taxation were preserved; regional development was the favoured way to control mass unemployment in the areas of urban industrial decline; nationalisation was seen as the solution in reviving core industries such as mining, which had been faltering in private hands. By 1947, more than one fifth of British industry had been drawn into public ownership. The popularity of the 1942 Beveridge Report, which laid much of the groundwork for the establishment of the NHS and the Welfare State, was an endorsement of Labour politics.The Conservatives voted against the creation of a centralised health service in 1946, preferring rather the idea of state provision of healthcare administered at local level.
Conservative opposition fell off quickly, however, when the popularity of the NHS became increasingly apparent following its inception in 1946. The 1946 National Health Service Act provided free access to a range of hospital and general practitioner services across the country. The 1946 National Insurance Act was also a key domestic reform of the Attlee government.For the first time, the government provided a catch-all benefits system which hypothecated a proportion of tax revenue thence to be paid against sickness, elderliness and unemployment to name but three key entitlements.
As a response to the housing problem, Dalton committed to building one million new homes, 80% of which were council houses to be rented cheaply to those who most needed them. Although progress was initially slow on this front, one million houses were eventually built and the housin
problem was eased for a while.This massive reform of the 1945-1946 period was dealt a blow in February 1947, when the government faced a fuel crisis. Extremely cold weather met with insufficient stockpiles of coal, and much industry ground to a halt as a result. Then, in the summer of 1947, problems arose with the US war loan to be paid to the British government, in the form of the ‘convertibility clause’. This committed the UK government to keeping the value of sterling at a stable rate against the US dollar, and this meant that the government’s hands were tied as they sought to address Britain’s balance of payments deficit by means of international trade.
Instead, this 1947 balance of payments crisis – compounded by the fuel shortage and the convertibility clause – forced Labour to rein in spending. As he struggled to justify his November emergency budget tightening spending and committing to an exchange rate policy subservient to US demands, Dalton resigned as Chancellor. Although it was hoped that Dalton’s resignation might offset some of the decline in public confidence in Labour’s economic policy, the government were never again endorsed by mass popularity as in the previous two years.The new Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps expected of the country an austere realism which entailed the retention of rationing.
His frugality extended to his welfare policies, which involved the further tightening of benefit payments. Both of these policies were unpopular amongst the mass electorate, and rationing caused consternation most notably the middle class, to whom the need for wartime prudence was no longer apparent. It is at this point that the switch from socialist idealism to pragmatic consolidation might be identified as a cause of voter disaffection.In spite of some successes during 1948, including good export figures, participation in the Berlin Airlift and – regardless of middle class perceptions – generous relaxations in rationing, the public’s faith in the Attlee government to manage the rebuilding of Britain had dropped off considerably. The Conservative Party made some political headway by attacking the government’s credentials with regard to the 1948 devaluation of the pound, which was designed to bring about the much needed rise in exports.Although it did help to achieve this end, Churchill’s party was able to lament publicly the humiliation the government had brought upon the British currency, and at the same time place blame on the government for the continuing food scarcities and long queues.
So, at the 1950 election there was a 2. 9% swing against Labour. Although this was not much in terms of the popular vote, Labour lost 78 seats and the Conservatives gained 101; Labour were left with a majority of just five seats.This large Parliamentary shift, in the face of an unremarkable swing in the popular vote, can be attributed partly to Labour’s loss of the middle class vote. While Labour managed to retain much working class support – largely because of the role class identification was playing in determining partisan support at this time – the middle class had quickly become disaffected.
Their living standards had not radically altered since 1945, and the significance of
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