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 1945 election is one of our habitual bookmarks in writing political and social history; certainly for my generation and the one before it, contemporary history began in 1945. No other point is quite so clearly marked off by the immense changes of the Second World War and a decisive shift in political alignment in a domestic election. The normally risk-averse British electorate voted decisively for a change, in economic and global circumstances that could hardly have been more unstable and unpredictable.
July 1945 also marks a turning point in the study of elections; in reaction to the historical fog around the 1918 election, academics decided to take a dispassionate and numerate approach to a type of event that had previously been left to folklore and gut instinct. The 1945 election vindicated the psephologists (the term had not yet entered currency) against what Ronald McCallum and Alison Readman, in the first of the Nuffield general election studies, called the ‘political meteorologists’ who would sniff the air and predict the election.
Meteorology often predicts a better result for the Conservatives than standard psephology, and let us not forget that it is more often wrong than right. But every now and then, frustratingly, the meteorologists turn out to be right after all – the polling industry as a whole seems to suffer an embarrassing failure about every 22 years (1970, 1992, 2015), oddly enough in the same direction and by similar margins each time.
Looking now at the abundant evidence of the wartime by-elections and the Gallup poll showing Labour 8 points ahead, the result should not have been surprising. But most people expected the Conservatives to maintain a narrow majority despite significant Labour gains since 1935. This was curious, because at that stage there had never been an election in the age of mass democracy that had produced a narrow overall majority for a party – elections had varied between hung parliaments and substantial, often huge, overall majorities since before Disraeli’s Second Reform Act of 1867.
The electoral system appeared, just after 1945, to work in a reasonably predictable way when a party was more than a couple of points clear of its rival: it would magnify the margin of victory to deliver a comfortable Commons majority with a popular vote margin of 5-6 points and a landslide with much more, according to a formula known as the Cube Law. This was rediscovered in 1949 by David Butler, and written up on the eve of the 1950 election in the Economist; Winston Churchill was sufficiently taken with the idea that he invited the young Butler to dine with him for three and a half hours at Chartwell, a deux, two weeks before polling day. The conversation ranged much wider than statistics; Churchill was in magnificent form, ranging widely over recorded history:
“What a small man Napoleon was. Why, he could sit on his horse at Waterloo and see all the armies of Europe spread out before him. How much bigger was that evil man in Berchtesgaden with his troops deployed from the Urals to the Channel … I hate tyranny!”
It is often the fate of such laws to be disproved shortly after being popularised, and the same happened with the Cube Law and the proposition (contra Tony Blair) that Britain was either a landslide or a hung parliament country. The 1950 election produced a tiny Labour majority, and small majorities have been relatively common in the post-1945 era. As the number of marginal seats has declined, and support for third and fourth parties has risen, it has become harder and harder to translate a modest lead in votes into a comfortable Commons majority.
The Conservatives could take comfort in 1945 from a long-established political rule that did not stop working until 1955 – the swing of the pendulum. There was no existential fear for the existence of the party despite its defeat. While July 1945 was the first trouncing the party had taken since 1906, the Conservatives escaped from the 1945 rout with considerable assets.
They, and their various alternate labels such as National Liberal, had 210 Members of Parliament – a number that the Conservatives never reached in opposition in 1997-2010. The calibre of the Conservative parliamentary party was, as far as one can measure these things, pretty high. Alongside Churchill sat Anthony Eden, R.A. Butler and, once he had returned in a by-election for Bromley after losing Stockton in July, Harold Macmillan. The Tory back benchers elected in 1918 were famously described – by Stanley Baldwin, no less – as ‘a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war’, but those of 1945 were a superior article. Take, for instance, the Times Guide mini-biography of the Conservative MP for Glasgow Central (a striking enough concept in itself), Lt.-Col. J.R.H. Hutchison:
“A 52-year-old Glasgow business man, for four months after D Day operated with the Maquis behind enemy lines. As he was known to the Gestapo his features were altered by plastic surgery.”
A few years as a think tank researcher and a special adviser hardly starts to compare.
The Conservative Party had a mass membership in the country, access to generous financial resources which were used to build up organisation locally and centrally, and the enthusiasm of idealistic and intelligent young people like Reggie Maudling, Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod, whose work for the parliamentary party started in September 1945. The Conservatives also controlled the House of Lords with an enormous majority, leading to the ad-hoc expedient that has now become known as the ‘Salisbury-Addison convention’. Despite the huge Labour majority in the Commons, there were still levers that the Tories could pull, although postponing nationalisation of the steel industry was the principal fruit of the Conservative peers’ limited resistance.
The Conservatives had nearly 40 per cent of the vote, a level of popular support, even at this nadir, that no party has reached since Labour in 2001.They also remained a national party in a way that no party can claim to be in 2015. They had healthy representation in Scotland, returning 27 MPs out of 71; the Scottish Unionists dominated the countryside, and had five of Glasgow’s 15 MPs. There were Tory representatives from the middle-class residential and commercial districts of the great provincial cities: three in Birmingham, three in Liverpool, two in Sheffield, one each in Manchester and Newcastle. The seaside resorts stood firm, as they did not in 1997, and there was little defection (as there was in 1923 and 1997) to the Liberals in the more genteel spa, cathedral and racecourse seats like Bath, Wells and Newbury.
The map of 1945 still looks mostly blue because of the Conservatives’ continuing strength in rural England and Scotland. The Conservatives’ grip here has barely slackened since 1886. There have been very few elections in which this fortress has suffered more than superficial damage – the most convincing attack was by the Liberals in 1906, but nearly all the ground lost was promptly recaptured at the next election in January 1910. The Liberals had a last Indian summer in some surprising rural constituencies in the peculiar contest of 1923 but, other than that, the election of 1945 was the Tories’ weakest point in the countryside.
There are some quite large, contiguous bits of red outside the big cities. One patch covers most of the rural Midlands from The Wrekin to Peterborough, encompassing a Labour clean sweep in Derbyshire. Since the mid-1960s, with the coming of the motorways and the mine closures, this has trended to the Conservatives in most elections. The other big splodge of rural red is in East Anglia. Labour won all but one seat in Norfolk (East Norfolk, where a National Liberal survived), and picked up agricultural seats such as Cambridgeshire and Sudbury. The most agricultural bits of the countryside were Labour on the basis of the farm workers’ vote and perhaps the ancestral radicalism of chapel rather than church.
The Conservatives won votes on a surprisingly broad basis in 1945. There were only two regions or sub-regions where their vote share was below 30 per cent: Wales and east London. In most other areas, even when Labour dominated parliamentary representation, there were substantial minority Conservative votes: 37-39 per cent in Manchester-Salford, Sheffield, Birmingham, Scotland’s Central Belt and the London suburbs, and only a little less in the mining-industrial hinterland in the Midlands and Lancashire.
Conversely, Labour support in the southern counties where the Tories still predominated was pretty high: 38 per cent in non-metropolitan Surrey and in rural Somerset, with sub-30 per cent weak points really only in Devon and Cornwall, rural Yorkshire, the Marches and Northern Ireland. Being Labour on the Isle of Wight (40.7 per cent) or Tory in Manchester Ardwick (36.0 per cent) were minority pursuits in 1945, but not as flagrantly out of kilter as either political choice would be in 2015.
The 1945 election was, to be sure, a decisive Labour victory, but it also set up a future of competitive politics between two large, moderate parties with broad churches of support, solid institutional foundations and some support in nearly every corner of the nation. The Labour win, and the Tory fightback in 1945-51, produced a golden age of two party politics. The parties in 2015 have pathetically shallow roots in the life of the country, and weak and polarised bases of electoral support. It is more subjective, but there is an air of ridiculousness and triviality even about political ideas and leadership that contrasts with the age of Churchill and Attlee. Perhaps Brecht had it right: not ‘unhappy the land that has no heroes’, but ‘unhappy the land that has need of heroes.’ Maybe that is the heart of the difference between 2015 and 1945.
R. McCallum and A. Readman The British General Election of 1945 (Macmillan 1947, 1967).
D. Butler The Evolution of British Electoral Studies, address to LSE 20 March 2014.