Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The 1955 election has not, I concede, enjoyed a high profile in history. It took place in a generally tranquil period of British life, in a climate of peace and gathering prosperity, and its result was an unsurprising return to office for the Conservatives. But it has a number of peculiarities, ironies and parallels, and the sheer otherness of how elections were fought in the mid-1950s is interesting. So let us turn back the clock 60 years, to the Etonian Prime Minister who asked for a new lease on power from the electorate, and received it.
Most Conservatives entered the 1955 campaign brimming with confidence. The party had scraped across the line into government in October 1951, the Labour half of the electorate deeply apprehensive of the party’s intentions on economics and foreign policy. The peacetime Churchill government, in the event, was consensus-minded, peaceful and proved very successful at Keynesian economic management. Rationing was removed, houses were built, and full employment was sustained. Churchill’s powers were fading and he handed over to Eden, the popular heir apparent (his approval rating was 73 per cent), in April 1955. Eden went immediately for his own mandate and called the election for 26 May.
For Labour, the election came as a rude interruption to the serious business of infighting. Factional warfare was in full swing, with an attempt just before the election campaign to expel Nye Bevan. ‘If thy Nye offend thee, pluck it out’ mused Attlee, who was 72 and now in his twentieth year of party leadership. Labour’s ideology and leadership team had not been renewed to any great degree since 1951, and as well as the factionalism around Gaitskell and Bevan there was poisonous personal feuding involving Herbert Morrison.
The 1955 campaign bore more resemblance to the way elections were fought in the 1900s than it did to, say, the 1974 elections – let alone 2015. It was the last general election before television became an important influence on the campaign, being fought mostly in speeches, public meetings, the press and leaflets. There was hardly what we would recognise as a national campaign in terms of daily press conferences or even strategic plans by the parties of how the campaign period was to be used; the Labour campaign of 1959 made these innovations. Charge and counter-charge were made in successive speeches, like a slow tennis match, and perhaps a greater sense of argument and dialogue than the campaigns of 2015 in which the main aim seems to be to smash a rhetorical ace through regardless of what the opponent is doing.
Few expected any result except a Conservative win with a slightly increased majority, and the result was a pleasant surprise to some of the more pessimistic Conservatives such as Harold Macmillan (who thought they would get a majority of around 20). When the votes were counted, the Tories were net 23 seats up on 1951 (and Labour 18 seats down), for a more than adequate majority of sixty. A few opinion polls were taken during the campaign, which despite being conducted by what 2015’s pollsters would regard as hair-raisingly sketchy methodology turned in broadly accurate results.
The Conservatives polled 49.7 per cent of the vote, as near to a majority as anyone has reached since 1935. If one takes into account the seats the Tories did not contest and supported Liberal or Independent candidates, one can nudge the effective share of the vote just above 50 per cent. It was the only time since Palmerston that a government had increased its share of the vote after anything like a full term of office. May 2015 is a partial exception, in that the main party in the coalition increased its vote even if the combined coalition vote fell sharply.
The geography of the 1955 election is more than a little peculiar from the vantage point of 2015. In Scotland, the Conservative and Unionist Party won an undisputed majority of seats and votes, the only time the 50 per cent barrier was cleared in Scotland between 1931 and the SNP rout in 2015. The Tories won 7 of the 15 seats in Glasgow. The Tories also polled very well in the urban north in 1955 (as in Scotland, they slipped back in 1959 in the North West, so 1955 was a post-war high). Six of the nine seats in Liverpool were Tory, and so were – perhaps more surprisingly given Liverpool’s Orange Tory heritage – four out of nine in Manchester, with Oldham and Rochdale also returning Tory MPs and Labour majorities in seats such as Salford West and Stalybridge and Hyde being trimmed to three figures. There being relatively little electoral change, the ‘class of 1955’ was small and not particularly illustrious – its most notable new member was Willie Whitelaw.
Labour held off the swing fairly well in a number of marginal seats, with the help of incumbency and also, in some areas, the application of modern methods to canvassing. In Reading, Ian Mikardo – an ex-Communist management consultant and later House of Commons bookmaker – introduced the ‘Reading Pad’ system of recording pledges and having multiple duplicate sheets for ‘knocking up’ on election day. Although the national swing was fairly even, Labour did better in a number of rural East Anglian seats, even gaining the idiosyncratic marginal seat of Norfolk South West from the Conservatives – a late rallying of the farm workers’ vote at a time of mild agricultural depression.
In some ways, the very high Labour share of the vote in 1955 is the surprise. At 46.4 per cent, it has only been surpassed once since (1966). This was despite the party’s divisions, its uninspiring programme and tired leadership, and the failure of war and unemployment to appear under the Tories in 1951-55. But the close, two party contest was frozen in place by solid class-based loyalty. An agent for one of the big parties told David Butler – then studying his fourth election:
‘There are no issues. This is just a national census to see who’s Labour and who’s Conservative.’
Labour or Conservative was part of a person’s identity in 1955; one not merely voted for one’s party, but was – on an existential level – affiliated to one team or the other. But even then, some participants felt that the bonds had already started to slacken compared to the peak reached in 1950.
Hugh Gaitskell confided to his diary that the electors seemed more like ‘friendly supporters on the sidelines rather than people taking part in the fight themselves’. Hugh Dalton thought it was ‘the most tedious, apathetic, uninteresting and, I think, worst organised of them all’ among his 12 parliamentary elections. Reggie Maudling’s astute constituency agent Arthur Fawcett mused in 1953 that ‘the advent of television is already having an effect on attendance at meetings and social functions…It is now nearly impossible to canvass when any big programme is on.’ The fall in turnout in 1955 from 82.6 per cent to 76.8 per cent was the biggest between 1918 and 1997. Even then, there were some signs that the era of nearly pure two party politics was going to be a short one.
The mandate that the Conservatives were given in 1955 was emphatically not a vote for change. The party’s manifesto essentially promised more of the same – expanding the social services, health and education, peaceful superpower diplomacy, consensus economic management, no denationalisation but continuing relaxation of regulations.
Some election campaigns and results prove a poor guide to the course of events and political issues of the next few years. Events come along, as Eden’s successor so famously observed, and mess up everyone’s plans. Sometimes there is an ironic dimension to the events involved, and this was very much the case in 1955. There were no sunlit uplands for Eden, any more than there were for Major in 1992. Having won on peace and prosperity, consensus and the apparently competent leadership of Anthony Eden, in 1955, Eden’s disastrous judgement threw it all away within a year and a half.
Even before Suez, the government was drifting and the generous budget of April 1955 was followed – once the election was out of the way – with a harsher package in October 1955, from which Rab Butler’s political reputation never fully recovered. The economic problems were as nothing compared to the disaster of Suez. The New Elizabethan age crashed into the realities of a world in which British gunboats were no match for financial markets and the Cold War leadership of the United States. Having raised the spectre of Labour reintroducing rationing during the 1955 election, the Conservative government ended up issuing ration books for petrol in 1956-57. A tranquil election campaign and a predictable result were followed by a turbulent, passionate Parliament.