The postwar period opened with the Labour landslide of 1945, and now, in what surely must be the last general election of the century, it's happened again. On the whole, however, James Meagan finds that it has been a Tory half-century
[ 1945 | 1950 | 1951 | 1955 | 1959 | 1964 | 1966 | 1970 | 1974(1) | 1974(2) | 1979 | 1983 | 1987 | 1992 | 1997 ]
Editor's note: This article first appeared in Election 1997 as "Natural born winners", reaching the conclusion that Labour has never demonstrated a claim to being the "natural party of government". Perhaps that is no longer true - but these are early days. The original is still available on our election archive site. This new version with updated graphics brings the record up to date.
The Tory party has a good claim to be the natural party of government in the UK. Out of all the elections since the second world war, the Conservatives have stood triumphant on eight occasions and, of their six defeats, on only two occasions have they suffered a serious election reverse.
Although victorious, Labour in 1950, 1964 and February 1974 were forced to muddle through on slim majorities and call early elections in 1951, 1966 and October 1974, in the first of which they were defeated in the next two they did manage to increase their majority. In all their postwar terms in office, the Conservatives have always at least managed to get into their fourth year of government.
Two's company: the postwar seesaw in the House of Commons
Three's a crowd: how the votes were actually cast
The first Tory electoral setback took place in July 1945, the 'welfare state election', as a result of which it was clear the voting public had turned their back on Winston Churchill, the saviour of Britain in the darkest years of the war.
The Tories had expected to win, with their superior organisation, the unchanged electoral register from 1935 (rendering the twentysomething section of society virtually voteless), the right of university graduates and businessmen to vote twice and the inadequate and inefficient methods used to return the overseas armed forces vote.
Clement Attlee's Labour achieved 47.8 per cent of the vote and the Conservatives 39.8 per cent out of a total electoral turn-out of 72.7 per cent (one of the lowest turnouts in the 20th century). The people had given Mr Attlee a clear mandate to implement the policies of the welfare state and they also voted heavily for independent candidates (14), including a heavy vote for the Communist Party.
Labour could easily work with 393 MPs out of a total of 640, the greatest majority in their history. The Tories had to shuffle along on the backbench with 213 MPs, one of the lowest quotas in their history. For the Tories the difficulty of attempting life as a working government opposition with so few seats was a daunting prospect, very similar to Labour's disastrous performance under Michael Foot in June 1983 (209 seats against the Tories' 397).
So the Conservative recovery in the March 1950 general election was remarkable, even if it did follow the years of postwar austerity that Labour had presided over.
The voters were turning against Labour, who were re-elected by a small majority: 315 seats to the Conservatives' 298, giving Labour a tiny lead of six seats over all other parties - though they won 46.1 per cent of the vote compared to 43.5 for the Tories. An enormous 84 per cent of the electorate turned out. This was the first postwar chance for the younger generation to vote and many opted for Churchill's party.
The 1950 election would reactivate the antiquated trend of dividing Britain's voters along predictable geographic, class, gender and age lines that would apply to the general elections of 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970 ,1974 (both elections) and would not end until the 1979 election, when large sections of the working class turned against Labour and voted for Margaret Thatcher.
Young people (18-24) - up until 1979 - tended to go for Labour, but, perhaps surprisingly, there is no doubt that it was the womens' vote that secured victory for the Conservatives in 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1970. Working-class women often chose to oppose the automatic choice of their Labourite husbands, one of the few areas in which they could do so.
The ethnic minority vote was not an issue until the 1964 election, and has been responsible for securing for Labour a number of seats since, particularly in inner-city areas.
The areas that would cripple Labour were becoming apparent in March 1950: taxation, strikes and defence. Not only could the Tories use these issues as weapons against Labour, but the Labour Party itself at various periods weakened itself by internal division and leadership rivalry. In this election and in future ones, the Tories, particularly in the cold war period of the 50s, 60s and 70s, were perceived to be much the stronger party on defence.
Labour's 1950 government found such a slim majority a struggle and they were forced to call an early election in October 1951.
Despite Labour gleaning their highest-ever vote - 48.8 per cent of the electorate and 295 seats - Winston Churchill's Conservatives were re-elected with 321 seats and 48 per cent of the votes. Churchill gleaned a smaller percentage of the vote than Labour's, showing to some extent the unfairness of the constituency divisions of the time. The total turnout was a hefty 82.5 per cent.
By the April 1955 election, Attlee's Labour was completely split over the defence issue. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was in full swing and Labour became associated with a committment to unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear weapon debate would hurt Labour up until the 1980s, in fact. In 1955 Labour's proposal to rearm Germany, the Tories' income tax cut, and strikes involving the London newspapers, docks and rail all cost Labour the election. Anthony Eden was elected as Conservative Prime Minister, with a majority of 58 seats over all the other parties and 344 seats to Labour's 277.
Labour lost a million and a half votes in this election, and it is perhaps at this point that we see the Tories associated with postwar prosperity and successful management of the UK economy (later Prime Minister Macmillan's catchphrase was 'You've never had it so good'). Labour was pilloried in the press for stirring up class issues, encouraging strikes and being soft on Moscow.
The October 1959 election saw the new Conservative party leader Harold Macmillan defeat the new Labour leader, (Attlee had stood down after his defeat in 1955, and Anthony Eden stepped down for health reasons after the 1956 Suez crisis), Hugh Gaitskell by a margin of 365 to 258 out of 630 seats, in the first British TV election.
Macmillan came across much better in this medium than his opponent - most British politicians had little practical TV experience, and both Attlee and Churchill had fought shy of the new medium. A test broadcast, recently released, of Churchill's only attempt suggests that this was just as well.
However, in many ways it was the same old story - Tory tax cuts, a nationwide bus strike, blamed as usual on Labour's undying links with the trade unions, and the public perception of 'SuperMac's' strength on defence issues, won it for the Tories.
The one issue that did not divide Labour and the Conservatives too strongly, however, was the welfare state. Both parties were committed to the National Health Service, and the Conservatives did not seek to reverse any of Labour's nationalisations. This consensus became known as 'Butskellism' after its exponents R A B Butler for the Tories, and Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader. Butskellism survived until the reign of Mrs Thatcher in 1979, and even now there are so-called 'one-nation' Tories who would not be out of place in Macmillan's Britain.
Attlee may have called Macmillan Labour's best postwar prime minister, but the country decided to give the real Labour Party a chance. Finally, after 13 years in the wilderness, a Labour government under Harold Wilson was elected in October 1964, although most people remember the election of February 1966 that rapidly followed.
Lest we forget, though, in October 1964 Labour was returned to power, but only by four seats over the combined total of the other parties (317 seats against 304 for the Tories under Sir Alec Douglas Home). It was estimated that had 900 voters across the electoral board not voted for Labour, Harold Wilson would have lost. This goes against the popular myth that Britain was ready to embrace socialism after 13 years of Tory domination. However, it is also true that had there been no postal vote Labour would have gained between 20 and 40 seats. Clement Attlee had introduced this and it always told against Labour. It seems that the postal voter, the expat Brit, is a natural Tory supporter.
Labour were not trusted in 1964 to run the economy. Working-class fears over immigration were hurting Wilson's party. His 17 months in office pacified the public sufficiently to allow him another chance. He was no longer the socialist demon portrayed by the opposition in 1964.
Wilson returned to the country for a renewed mandate in February 1966 and in this second great postwar Labour triumph, Labour defeated Ted Heath's Conservatives by 110 seats (363-253, 47.9 per cent to 41.9 per cent). He had also led Labour into a second electoral victory with an increased majority, a 20th-century first. Margaret Thatcher was to repeat this trick in 1979 and 1983, although by the 1987 election, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock succeeded in holding Labour steady and had help to whittle the Conservatives' majority over all parties from 143 in 1983 to 102 in 1987.
In 1966 unemployment was low and wages were rising, both encouraging signs, to an extent a consequence of the health of the world economy, but crucial ingredients in any election victory cake.
The turn-out was low in both 1964 and 1966 (77 per cent and 76 per cent respectively,as opposed to the 79 per cent turn out in 1959). It seems the excitement for Wilson's 'white heat of technology' was not as high as it could have been.
In June 1970, despite the opinion polls pointing to another Labour win, Labour were defeated. They did not lose, as popular mythology would have it, because of England's football World Cup defeat by West Germany - the election was a month before the World Cup. They lost because, after six years in opposition, people were willing to give Ted Heath's Tories a chance, discounting the fact Heath was the most unpopular Tory leader since the war. The 72 per cent turn-out was the lowest this century.
In 1970, wages were rising and home ownership was on the increase. But inflation was up and industrial relations were not good. Labour would be blamed for the amount of working days lost through strikes.
The Conservatives received 46.4 per cent of the vote and 330 seats in 1970 against Labour's 42.9 per cent and 287 seats out of a 72 per cent turn-out with 630 seats available. After six years, Labour had some reason for feeling that they had replaced the Tories as the natural party of government - 1970 was a rude awakening, and it seemed that the British people had a deep-seated need to return the Conservatives, who were seen as the party of the economy - to government.
In February 1974, because of the declared state of emergency due to the world oil crisis, a miners' strike and the three-day working week that resulted from disruption in energy supplies, a general election was called. This was a disastrous Tory Government - some Conservative voters voted for Labour in opposition to Heath's pro-European Community stance (the Tory MP Enoch Powell encouraged them to do so) and yet Labour barely squeaked in - 301 to 297 seats. That strange British electoral quirk applied here again, the Tories had more of the vote and still lost (37.9 per cent against Labour's 37.1 per cent).
Wilson was able to form Britain's first minority Government since 1929-31 (also Labour) and, in fact, Labour received their lowest share of the poll since 1931.
Labour consolidated that slender victory in October 1974, winning 319 seats to the Tories' 277 seats but, for the first time since the war, the other parties had a key role to play. The Liberals, after a wilderness period for this centre party in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, increased their share of seats in both of the 1974 elections, as did the Scottish National Party (Scottish and Welsh nationalist feeling underwent an upsurge in the 1970s, although it seems to have plateaued since), and the Ulster Unionist parties now had a direct role to play in Westminster politics (The Liberals took 13 and various others 26 seats). This was the era of the 'Lib-Lab pact' - if no party holds a majority this time, or Labour holds a slender majority, it could happen again.
This was the last postwar Labour government. The Labour party, which was never really the natural party of government, but could still hope to win, was on the road to a decade of unelectability, which it has reason to hope may soon be over.
The end came in 1979. After the 'winter of discontent', a period of industrial unrest when rubbish lay in the streets and, it is said, the dead went unburied, Margaret Thatcher was swept to power in May 1979, with a Commons majority of 43, on a program aimed at curbing trade union power, reduction of state spending - at the expense of the welfare state - and denationalisation. It is worth noting, however, that in 1979, when Thatcher received the highest percentage of the popular vote - 43.9 per cent of any of the three elections she fought, she still never reached the almost 50 per cent level attained by Macmillan in 1959 - but that was a quite different brand of Toryism.
The political cynicism of the time is emphasised by the turn-out, which was almost as low as that in 1970. Electoral turn-outs have been rising ever since.
Tensions between right and left in the Labour Party reached breaking point, and it fractured. The right wing under the 'Gang of Four', David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and William Rodgers, formed the Social Democratic Party. It was the SDP-Liberal Alliance, not a mythical 'Falklands factor', that led to Labour's election disaster in June 1983, the party's worst electoral performance since the 1930s.
Fortunately for Labour, the geographically unconcentrated nature of the Alliance vote led to them losing far fewer seats than they might. The Tory share of the vote actually went down, to 42.4 per cent, and has stayed at around the 1983 level ever since, but the split on the left gave the Tories an overwhelming Commons majority of 143, easily enough for the Thatcherites to proceed with their radical plans.
The British 'first-past-the-post' electoral system does not favour third parties, and it was obvious that either Labour or the Alliance would face electoral collapse. In the event, it was the SDP that gave way. Although not completely a spent force by the election of June 1987 - the Alliance certainly cost Labour any chance of winning the election - it was on the road to ruin.
Neil Kinnock's Labour was disappointed, but had every reason to expect to win next time. This time, the Tories were returned with a reduced, but still handsome, majority of 102 MPs.
Then, amazingly, on 9 April 1992, in the middle of the worst economic recession since the 1930s, the Conservatives under John Major won a fourth term in office. The margin of victory: 336 seats to Labour's 271 from a total of 651 seats - a workable Tory majority, despite the Conservative loss of 39 seats and the Labour gain of 42 seats. It was a cruel blow to the Labour party - and to the opinion pollsters, who predicted a clear Tory defeat.
Many theories were mooted in the aftermath of the election, asking why Labour lost; election boundary changes, the disenfranchisement of the many poll tax refugees and fear among the electorate of Labour's tax proposals were probably important factors in the defeat. However, it does say something for the British public's consciousness of the importance of general elections that the total electoral turnout was 77.7 per cent; it stands as the fifth highest turn-out of the 14 general elections since the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.
The general election we have just been through has neatly bracketed the past half-century with two Labour landslides. Yet, there are crucial differences between Labour's 1945 landslide and their current triumph. Most importantly, as can be seen from the graphics at the start of this piece, 1997 was much less of a landslide for Labour in terms of the popular vote than 1945 (even though they won more seats) - it was, however, an absolute disaster for the Tories, both in terms of seats and votes. This also resulted in a Lib Dem upsurge, on a popular vote that actually fell by 0.1 per cent since 1992.
But this may be a landmark election in more ways than one. It is not just that it is, surely, the last of the century, ushering in the end of 18 years of Tory rule, with Labour's largest ever majority in the Commons, the lowest poll for the Tories, and the largest number of Lib Dem seats since 1945. It may be, if Labour follow through on their committments, that the next general election will be fought on different rules. If so, the very phrase "natural party of government" may be scheduled for redundancy.
In the meantime, even on the current rules, it is worth remembering that it is only the second term in government - not to speak of the maintenance of a good parliamentary majority - that can confer the title of natural party of government. And, in this respect, if the evidence of the past 50-plus years is anything to go by, the Conservatives still clearly have the edge. We can only wait and see.
James Meagan holds an MA in Modern History from Trinity College Dublin and researches political trends for National Opinion Polls Ltd.