VE DAY AND THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1945 WHICH FOLLOWED
Extraordinary times in the summer of 2020 coincide with the 75th Anniversary, first of VE Day, and then of the unique political summer of 1945.
The end of World War II in Europe on 8 May 1945 hastened the end of the wartime National Government, catapulting the United Kingdom into a wartime General Election before victory over Japan had been secured.
It is likely that the General Election took place faster than most of the major political players anticipated themselves on VE Day. Winston Churchill wanted to postpone the election at least until after the defeat of Japan. There was some pressure from within the Labour Party for an election by the autumn of 1945 and resistance to the idea of postponing it indefinitely. However, there were huge logistical issues to be addressed to meet the challenge of holding the election in wartime. A House of Commons Research Paper tells us there were apparently 4,682,000 men in the forces on 30th June 1945. Although around a million of them may have been under 21, and not eligible to vote, the remainder were from constituencies right across the country and would have to have their votes transported not just back to the UK but to their individual constituencies. It is likely that up to perhaps 3 million votes would have had to have been distributed accordingly.
It would be a surprise if logistical preparations for the General Election had been at the front of the minds of the Party leaders. Churchill was leading the nation to victory in Europe whilst Labour leader and Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee was dealing with not just his continuing supporting role to Churchill within the National Government but also political threats to his leadership from within his Party.
Nonetheless, Attlee had to manage an important Labour Party Conference in May 1945, wrestling with the important issue of withdrawing from the wartime coalition. Enthusiastic candidates such as a young Major Denis Healey, later Secretary of State for Defence and Chancellor of the Exchequer who had returned from service in Yugoslavia for the Conference, were campaigning for a fresh start and the Party did not want to wait for an election indefinitely.
Labour made the decision to withdraw from the National Government following VE Day. The National Government which had achieved so much ended on 23 May 1945 and the temporary Conservative government announced Parliament would be dissolved on 5 June 1945 ahead of the 5 July General Election.
Churchill had called Labour’s bluff by holding the General Election early – though counting would not take place until July 26 to allow overseas votes from the forces to come home to constituencies to be counted. This must have presented returning officers up and down the country with a huge, practical logistical challenge in ensuring an efficient election in novel circumstances with an unexpectedly short timetable.
Nevertheless, the race for post-war power was now on.
The narrative has grown up that Labour’s unexpected victory in 1945 was the result of idealism and enthusiasm in the armed forces vote, borne of a determination not to return to the sombre austerity of the 1930s. Certainly, reading Denis Healey’s account of his unsuccessful personal campaign in 1945 in his autobiography “The Time of My Life”, it was not pragmatism but idealism which spurred him on: “I spoke with total confidence, based largely on total ignorance.” He continues, however: “My central theme was sound enough: we must solve the problems of the peace by applying the same planning techniques as we had used to win the war.”
Though Churchill had been the face of the British war effort and central to its success, supporting players such as Attlee and Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, were important figures in the National Government, ensuring essential political unity of purpose. This must also have helped build necessary credibility for Labour.
However, the turnout figures in the 1945 General Election do question some of the generally accepted reasoning behind the unexpected result. In the event, though overall turnout in the election was around 72%, forces turnout was just 59%. Only 2,895,000 were on the service electoral register and, of those on the service register, only 1,701,000 succeeded in recording their votes. It appears Labour’s landslide was delivered up and down the country, not just in the services’ vote.
Nonetheless, conducting a General Election at such a time was a memorable feat, particularly given the very short timescale.
So far as the result was concerned, all the indications were that Churchill himself had no political fear of the early election, even after it had been held. He invited Attlee to the Potsdam Conference in July after the Election but before the count, when Attlee was not a member of the Government – as a matter of courtesy, according to Churchill’s private secretary Sir John Colville – “he did not dream that he would lose the election.”
But, as we all now know, Churchill did lose the 1945 Election. The Election itself was held in a period of national crisis, with World War II continuing, and its successful conduct is a tribute to the strength of the British democracy the country had been fighting to defend. That a National Government had been in place from 1940 until days before the election was called must have supported confidence in the process but, looking back from 2020, one cannot help but admire the unity of purpose that delivered a General Election in such times. In the unprecedented times which we all face now, we need to learn from the wartime generation that we can prepare, organise and deliver in extraordinary circumstances and, also, that crisis is no barrier to new thinking. For remember too that, within three years of that 1945 Election, the country delivered the National Health Service in which, today, we are placing so much trust.
Ian Lucas was Member of Parliament for Wrexham from 2001 until retiring at the 2019 General Election, and is now Senedd & Parliament Adviser for Cogitamus Limited