Chapter 1: The 1950 general election
  • Let Us Win Through Together

    a British Politics Wikibox tl

    by gaitskellitebevanite

    Chapter 1


    Labour’s victory in the June 1950 election is now considered a foregone conclusion, but Labour was not always likely to win a second term. Opinion polls through 1948 and 1949 were bleak, indicating a significant swing against Labour and a Tory lead varying between 3 and 10 points. The boundary changes implemented under the Representation of the People Act undoubtedly harmed Labour, as many underpopulated inner city seats were abolished, and many more seats altered. It estimated the boundary changes alone cost Labour around 40 seats.

    The timing of the election itself was a point of controversy. Whilst Attlee, Morrison and Gaitskell favoured a May or June poll, the Chancellor Stafford Cripps was later to write that he was strongly opposed to calling an election after the April budget, believing it would inevitably make popular budget measures seem like bribing the electorate. Cripps’ health, often fragile, took a turn for the worse in December 1949, and he was not involved in serious election planning.

    Labour entered the June election campaign with several advantages. Firstly the decision of the Liberal Party to field 503 candidates – the most since 1929 – undoubtedly harmed the Tories, as a majority of potential Liberal voters were of an anti-socialist persuasion. Secondly petrol rationing came to an end in May 1950, a popular move which undoubtedly swayed a few swing voters towards returning the government. A summer election was also always likely to have a higher turnout than one held in the winter months, and a higher turnout was always felt to help Labour. Finally a June election gave the Labour party machinery time to prepare for a campaign.

    The 1950 election saw a significant swing against the government, but Attlee was returned as Prime Minister with an overall majority of 43.

    1950 election Labour 1950.png
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    Chapter 2: The 1953 Labour Party leadership election
  • Chapter 2

    Not long after the 1950 election two of the government’s most dominant figures left the stage. In August Stafford Cripps, who’d long been in poor health, finally retired as Chancellor. Cripps’ successor was his deputy, the Economic Affairs Minister Hugh Gaitskell, who at 44 years old was the youngest Chancellor since Austen Chamberlain half a century earlier. Meanwhile the robust figure of Ernest Bevin stepped down from the Foreign Office the following April, he was replaced by Colonial Secretary Jim Griffiths.

    Days after the election North Korea invaded South Korea. The Korean War brought the real risk of the Cold War going Hot, and Britain was forced into rearming in preparation. This, combined with his annoyance at not receiving either the Treasury or the Foreign Secretaryship led Aneurin Bevan, along with Harold Wilson and John Freeman to resign from the cabinet. Bevan’s decision to resign in effect ended any realistic hope for him to succeed Attlee as party leader. Of the three only Wilson was to later return to cabinet.

    The defeat of 1950 caused great consternation within Conservative ranks. If the parliament lasted for a full term the Tories would face their longest spell in opposition since the 18th Century, and even when the Liberal’s had been returned in the elections of 1910 it had been as a minority, whereas the re-elected Labour government had a stable majority of 43. Churchill himself sank into a deep depression following the election, he had been a largely absent opposition leader in the 1945-50 parliament, and had spent much of his time abroad playing the role of international statesman. A significant number of backbenchers blamed Churchill’s lacklustre leadership for the defeat. In November 1950 Churchill gave in to the inevitable and retired as leader, handing over to his long serving deputy Anthony Eden.

    After the economically difficult years of 1950-1952, where the government faced a balance of payments crisis and war in Korea, 1953 was to be. The coronation of Elizabeth II in June followed by armistice in Korea in July convinced Attlee that, like Stanley Baldwin, it was better to bow out whilst on top. Attlee swiftly resigned that September.

    By 1953 Gaitskell as Chancellor had supplanted Morrison as the clear number two figure in the government, and had become the de facto leader of the centre-right, reformist wing of the Labour Party. This didn’t stop Morrison from running for the leadership, he had after all been the anointed leader-in-waiting for twenty years, and Attlee’s natural successor. However Morrison was 65 years old, and his political career had been on the decline ever since 1947. Bevan also stood, as the standard bearer of the left, although many still didn’t forgive him for his resignation two and a half years earlier. Gaitskell performed incredibly well in the first ballot, with Morrison facing the humiliation of narrowly being knocked into third place by Bevan and subsequently announcing his retirement from politics. Gaitskell defeated Bevan by a 2:1 margin on the second ballot.

    1953 labour leadership Labour 1950.png

    Chapter 3: The 1954 general election
  • Chapter 3
    The change in Prime Minister also saw a change in the cabinet, with veterans like Morrison, Dalton, Attlee, Chuter Ede and Shinwell leaving office. They were replaced by a new generation of figures including Richard Stokes, Hilary Marquand, Patrick Gordon Walker, Kenneth Younger, Frank Soskice Alf Robens, Douglas Jay and George Brown.

    Gaitskell found himself taking over the premiership at the beginning of a long period of prosperity, with near full employment and steady economic growth. Douglas Jay’s first budget in 1954 increased social benefits and announced plans to increase the housebuilding target from 200,000 homes a year to 300,000. These measures, as well as the end of sugar rationing, led to a boost in the government’s popularity. As a consequence Gaitskell decided to call a snap election in May 1954, over a year before it was due. Labour was returned to a third successive term with a slightly increased majority of 52.

    1954 election Labour 1950.png

    Second Gaitskell Ministry, May 1954

    Prime Minister – Hugh Gaitskell
    Lord Chancellor – Lord Thomson
    Leader of the House – Tom Williams
    Leader of the Lords – Lord Packenham
    Chancellor of the Exchequer – Douglas Jay
    Foreign Secretary – Jim Griffiths
    Home Secretary – Hartley Shawcross
    Commonwealth Secretary – Frank Soskice
    Colonial Secretary – John Strachey
    Defence Secretary – Richard Stokes
    President of the Board of Trade – Alfred Robens
    Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – Kenneth Younger
    Health Minister – David Hardman
    Education Minister – Edith Summerskill
    Transport Minister – Patrick Gordon Walker
    Agriculture Minister – Arthur Creech Jones
    Minister of Labour – Michael Stewart
    Housing Minister – George Brown
    Minister of Power – Hilary Marquand
    Scottish Secretary – Hector McNeil

    Chapter 4: Gaitskell in Power
  • Chapter 4
    Victory in 1954 finally saw Labour supplant the Conservatives as the “Natural Party of Government”. The defeat for the Tories was even more devastating than those of 1945 and 1950, particularly as the party had held a consistent opinion poll lead through much of 1951 and 1952. Despite Eden’s personal popularity moves began amongst Conservative MPs to replace him as leader, and whilst Eden was able to remain in position his standing amongst Tories was permanently weakened.

    Gaitskell’s speech at the October 1956 Labour Party Conference in Blackpool was to give Labour the ideological reassessment that had been lacking since the Attlee revolution of 1945-50. Gaitskell rejected calls for greater public ownership, but defended the existing nationalised industries. He passionately made the case for equality of opportunity, an expansive welfare state and full employment. He committed Labour to clearing all inner city slums by 1970, and replacing the Tripartite Education system which had been created under the 1944 Education Act with a system of Comprehensive Schools.

    Wider social reform was also pushed through under Gaitskell’s Home Secretaries; first the former Nuremberg prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross and later the reformist Kenneth Younger. The Sexual Offences Act 1958 decriminalised consensual homosexual acts. Whilst the Murder Act 1958 suspended all executions for a period of five years – although did not abolish the death penalty altogether.

    Gaitskell’s main foreign policy objective was decolonisation. Between 1955 and 1957 dozens of Britain’s former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were granted independence. The Duke of Edinburgh was much later to complain he spent the period constantly on and off planes and ships granting far flung territories their independence. Gaitskell was keen to turn the Commonwealth into an international economic community to rival the European Economic Community, and through 1957 undertook several overseas trips to gain support for his plans. Upon returning from a trip to Australia in February 1958 Gaitskell suddenly became ill with what was later to be diagnosed as lupus, a viral infection. Through the course of a week his health rapidly deteriorated, and on 23rd February 1958 Hugh Gaitskell became the first Prime Minister since Lord Palmerston to die in office, aged just 51.

    Gaitskell wikibox Labour 1950.png

    After consultation with the cabinet, the Queen appointed the Leader of the House of Commons and Labour Deputy Leader Jim Griffiths as Prime Minister, on the understanding he would not contest the subsequent leadership election and stand down once a long term successor to Gaitskell had been elected. Gaitskell was accorded a Ceremonial Funeral at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen both his living predecessors as Prime Minister as well as world leaders including Presidents Eisenhower, Coty and Heuss and the Soviet Head of State Marshal Voroshilov. Thousands thronged to the streets of London to comemorate the passing of their Prime Minister.

    Gaitskell funeral.jpg

    Chapter 5: The 1958 Labour Party leadership election
  • Chapter 5
    The Prime Minister’s death produced a vacuum at the heart of government. The Chancellor, Douglas Jay, surprised colleagues by declining to contest the leadership, as did the Home Secretary Kenneth Younger. The Education Minister Hilary Marquand, the Minister of Labour Harold Wilson and the Foreign Secretary Alfred Robens contested the leadership.

    Harold Wilson, aged only 42, stood mainly to ‘put down a marker for the future’, and to claim leadership of the left after Bevan’s death the previous year. Despite his leftish reputation Wilson broadly agreed with his rival candidates in support of the Gaitskellite consensus, and privately scathing of calls from the left for further public ownership.

    Meanwhile Marquand was a socialist Welsh academic from a conservative family, and an avowed supporter of Gaitskell. Like Gaitskell he had served as a civil servant on the home front during the war. The oldest of the three candidates, he was still only 56.

    A product of the trade union movement, Robens entered parliament in 1945 for the mining constituency of Wansbeck. He held a number of cabinet posts, including Minister of Power, Minister of Labour and President of the Board of Trade, and in 1957 he succeeded Kenneth Younger as Foreign Secretary. A jolly Mancunian, Robens was liked and respected by both the Labour right and left, and was a capable and able administrator. He was aged 47.

    The first ballot, held on 1st April 1958 saw Robens take the lead and Wilson eliminated from the contest. Wilson’s supporters split favouring Robens, giving him a decisive victory in the second ballot held a week later. Robens was asked to form a government by the Queen later that day.

    1958 labour leadership Labour 1950.png
    Chapter 6: The 1958 general election
  • Chapter 6
    Robens was determined to shed Labour’s austere image, particularly after jibes from the opposition that Labour’s maintenance of wartime rationing was Cromwellian. In July 1958 all remaining rationing restrictions were lifted, and Labour surged to a 15 point poll lead. In the face of such polls, and believing he needed his own mandate Robens called an election for September 1958.

    The 1958 campaign is regarded by many as the first modern election campaign, with a series of magazine style party political broadcasts masterminded by Anthony Wedgewood Benn featuring prominent members of the cabinet – and Robens himself – proving very successful. Labour’s manifesto was much less radical than previous documents, and simply re-affirmed the government’s commitment to full employment and the welfare state. Anthony Eden – still the Conservative Leader – was prone to increasingly common bouts of ill health, and had the misfortune to spend much of the campaign bedridden. The most significant breakthrough was that of the Liberal Party under its charismatic new leader Jo Grimond, which nearly doubled its vote share. The election confounded the even the most optimistic Labour campaigners and saw the government returned after thirteen years in power with a majority of 94.

    1958 election Labour 1950.png
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    Chapter 7: The 1959 Conservative Party leadership election
  • Chapter 7
    Eden resigned as Tory leader the following year, but not before he bowed to backbench pressure to introduce a system for electing his successor by the parliamentary party. Rab Butler was the clear frontrunner, and one of increasingly few senior Tories to have significant governing experience, but his political views were seen as too moderate by a number of Conservative MPs. Harold MacMillan and Selwyn Lloyd both considered standing, but eventually opted against. Butler was to face only one opponent, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law Duncan Sandys. Sandys had the support from the right wing of the Tory backbenches, but had greater support amongst the constituency associations who preferred Sandys to Butler. Fears of a right-wing takeover saw Butler triumph with a strong majority.

    1959 conservative leadership Labour 1950.png

    In the post-election reshuffle Robens appointed Harold Wilson to a re-formed Ministry of Economic Affairs, designed to help ensure long term economic expansion and regional and national economic planning. The following year the National Economic Development Council was set up, an economic planning committee designed to bring together management, trade unions and the government in order to advise the ministry. Economic growth throughout this period remained strong, with government incentivising long term economic expansion over short term profitability.

    Second Robens Ministry October 1958

    Prime Minister – Alfred Robens
    Lord Chancellor – Lord Gardiner
    Leader of the House – Herbert Bowden
    Leader of the Lords – Lord Packenham
    Chancellor of the Exchequer – Douglas Jay
    Foreign Secretary – Kenneth Younger
    Home Secretary – Patrick Gordon Walker
    Colonial & Commonwealth Secretary – Geoffrey de Freitas
    Defence Secretary – John Strachey
    President of the Board of Trade – Hilary Marquand
    Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – Jack Diamond
    Health Minister – George Brown
    Education Minister – Frank Soskice
    Minister of Economic Affairs – Harold Wilson
    Transport Minister – Michael Stewart
    Agriculture Minister – Christopher Mayhew
    Minister of Labour – Denis Healey
    Minister of Works – Barbara Castle
    Minister of Power – James Callaghan
    Housing & Local Government Minister – Ray Gunter
    Minister without Portfolio – Jim Griffiths
    Scottish Secretary – Tom Fraser
    Chapter 8: The 1963 general election
  • Chapter 8
    Spending on social services, housing and education incrementally increased throughout the 1958-63 parliament as steady economic growth continued. Britain’s remaining African colonies were granted independence within the Commonwealth, and British forces ‘East of Aden’ – in Singapore and Malaya were withdrawn following the defeat of the Communist insurgency in the latter. By 1961 for the first time Britain was spending more on Education that it was on Defence. From 1961 onwards both Labour and the Conservatives suffered a number of by-election defeats to the resurgent Liberal Party under Jo Grimond.

    1963 election Labour 1950.png

    Labour retained government by a narrower margin, with a majority whittled down from 94 seats to 26, and for the first time since 1945 Labour failed to secure over 45% of the vote.
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