Let Us Win Through Together [Redux]: A British Politics TL



Today marks the 71st anniversary of the 1950 general election, one of the most significant of the post war period. Although there was no change of government, a strong swing towards the Conservatives almost wiped out Labour's landslide majority of 1945, and made Labour's eventual loss of power less than two years later almost inevitable. Paradoxically Labour won over a million more votes than in 1945, as the Conservatives gained an extra 3.5 million, with a record overall turnout of 83.9%. Whilst Labour was to win the national popular vote by nearly a million, many of these votes were wasted in overwhelmingly large majorities in safe Labour seats - particularly the South Wales Valleys. Labour had lost a significant ammount of support from middle class and rural working class voters, which led to the loss of 90 seats. Labour was also harmed by the relative weakness of the Liberal Party, and its decision only to stand 475 candidates, which led the anti-Labour vote to coalesce around the Conservatives.

Labour's narrow win owed a great deal to the intransigence of the Chancellor Stafford Cripps, who had ruled out a potential poll in May or June for fear it would by influenced by his April budget. As the general economic situation continued to improve through the year had the election been postponed Labour would have performed better at the polls. So what if the election had been postponed.....
Clement Attlee (1945-1953)

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Clement Attlee
With the War in Europe over the wartime coalition government dissolved and Britain headed to the polls for the first time in nearly ten years. Winston Churchill was regarded by many as ‘the man who won the war’, and was by far the most popular politician in the country. However memories of the aftermath of the Great War remained strong, and how Lloyd George had proved successful in leading the nation to victory but had failed to create the promised ‘land fit for heroes’. Instead it was Labour led by Clement Attlee who captured the public mood promising economic planning, public ownership and a greatly expanded welfare state. Labour achieved a landslide victory in 1945, winning an overall majority of 144 seats.

The new government quickly set about implementing its ambitious manifesto. The Coal industry, railways, electricity board, gas board and Bank of England were nationalised. A system of National Insurance was created, encompassing state pensions, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, maternity benefit and funeral benefit. New Towns were created, and nearly 1 million new homes were built between 1945 and 1950. National Parks were created, and the Town planning system was overhauled. The crown jewel in Labour’s domestic policy was the creation of the National Health Service, providing universal health care free at the point of use. In foreign affairs Attlee and his forceful Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin aligned Britain firmly with the United States, and helped to form NATO to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Britain withdrew from India, Burma, Palestine and Ceylon.

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.

Labour fought a strong campaign, with Herbert Morrison rallying the faithful, arguing that a Labour victory in 1950 was even more imperative than that of 1945. Attlee was famously driven around Britain by his wife Violet in their family car, making over 30 public speeches. In the end 1950 election saw a significant swing against the government, but Attlee was returned as Prime Minister with an overall majority of 43.

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. The cost of rearmarment necessitated cuts to some of Labour's domestic programmes, with Hugh Gaitskell announcing the introduction of fees for dentures and spectacles on the National Health Service. 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.

In contrast to the hurried legislating of the 1945 parliament, the parliament of 1950 was to be much quieter. Iron and Steel nationalisation, legislated for in 1949, took effect in 1951. The nationalisation of the cement industry with the creation of the Cement Board and the sugar beet industry through the creation of the British Sugar Corporation - both in 1952 - marked the last of the great post war wave of public ownership.

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 bowed 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 a year of recovery. 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.
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Hugh Gaitskell (1953-1958)
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Hugh Gaitskell

Hugh Gaitskell’s career in Labour politics had begun in the 1930s, where along with Douglas Jay and Evan Durbin he had been one of the young economists who had argued for a fundamental reshaping on Labours economic thinking, advocating economic planning as a solution to Britain’s economic woes. He had failed to be elected to parliament in 1935, and served as Hugh Dalton’s chief advisor during the war. Gaitskell finally entered parliament as part of the ’45 generation’ for Leeds South. He gained his first ministerial post less than a year after his election, becoming Under-Secretary of State for Fuel and Power. A year later he took over the department, and although outside cabinet, due to Stafford Cripps declining health was to prove on of the governments most influential economic ministers. Gaitskell replaced Cripps after the 1950 election, a remarkable appointment considering he had only served one parliamentary term as an MP.

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.

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 and Labour was returned to a third successive term with a slightly increased majority of 52.

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. The speech was seen by some as a form of British 'Bad Godesberg', and the beginning of Labour's subtle realignment from democratic socialism to social democracy. 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 1957 decriminalised consensual homosexual acts, whilst the Murder Act 1956 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.
Jim Griffiths (1958)
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Jim Griffiths
Jim Griffiths was Prime Minister for only 44 days – the shortest serving in British history – but it marked the pinnacle of a fifty year career in Labour Party politics. During his brief premiership he helped ensure the continuity of government, and ensured the orderly election of his successor.

Born in 1890 in the small village of Welsh speaking village of Betws, Carmarthenshire, Griffiths has the distinction along with Lloyd George of being one of only two British Prime Ministers to have learnt English as a second language. He left school at the age of 13 to become a miner. Griffiths came to socialism through the Christian religious revival of the early 1900s, joining the Independent Labour Party in 1908. He steadily rose through the ranks of the trade union movement, becoming Vice President of the South Wales Miners Federation in 1932, and President two years later. In 1936 he was elected to Parliament for the safe Labour seat of Llanelli, three years later he was elected to Labour’s governing National Executive Committee, a body he was to serve on continuously for the next 24 years.

Following Labour’s victory in 1945 he became Minister for National Insurance, and was responsible creating Britain’s state benefit system. Along with Aneurin Bevan Griffiths is regarded as one of the chief architects of the welfare state. After a brief spell as Secretary for the Colonies (1950-1951) Griffiths succeeded the ailing Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary (1951-1955). A self-described ‘reconciler’, Griffiths maintained good relations with all wings of the Labour Party, and was the obvious choice to succeed Herbert Morrison as Deputy Leader of the party in 1955. Griffiths had been sought out as a possible compromise candidate for the party leadership in succession to Attlee in 1953, and would almost certainly have obtained a strong vote had he stood. However Griffiths always saw himself as primarily a loyal servant to the movement, and was content to retain a backroom role, as exemplified in his being content to be reshuffled from the Foreign Office to become Leader of the House shortly after his election as Deputy Leader.

Gaitskell’s sudden death shocked Britain and the world, and created a vacancy for the highest office. There was no single obvious immediate successor to Gaitskell as party leader. A precedent did exist on the far side of the world. When Australian Prime Minister John Curtin had died in 1945 the Governor-General had sworn in the Deputy Labor Party leader, Frank Forde, as Prime Minister, on the understanding he would resign where he not confirmed as leader by the Labor caucus in parliament (he was subsequently defeated for the leadership and resigned a week later). A cabinet meeting was held shortly after the announcement of Gaitskell’s death, where it was unanimously agreed that Griffiths should be appointed Prime Minister on the understand that he would not contest the party leadership and would resign once a new party leader had been elected. He was appointed Prime Minister by the Queen later that evening.

The new Prime Minister made no changes to the cabinet, retaining all of Gaitskell’s ministers in position. The evening after his appointment Griffiths broadcast a public tribute on television. At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party it was agreed that as a mark of respect no leadership ballot would be held until after Gaitskell’s funeral. It was pure coincidence for Britain’s first welsh born Prime Minister that Gaitskell’s ceremonial funeral at Westminster Abbey happened to fall on St David’s Day. The funeral was the largest national event since the coronation, and was attended by the Queen and 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 commemorate the passing of their Prime Minister.

Following the election of a new Labour Leader Griffiths stood down as promised, retaining his post as Leader of the House of Commons before retiring to the backbenches after the 1958 election. He retired from parliament in 1963, being granted a Peerage. Lord Griffiths of Ammanford died in August 1975.
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.

I know this is a seemingly trivial detail to modern eyes, but I'm curious to know what you think a Labour government would have done for the Coronation. I have a suspicion it will be a slimmed down event. I can imagine Bevan being upset over the cost.
I know this is a seemingly trivial detail to modern eyes, but I'm curious to know what you think a Labour government would have done for the Coronation. I have a suspicion it will be a slimmed down event. I can imagine Bevan being upset over the cost.

I dont see any reason why there would be much difference with OTL. Attlee was just as much a royalist as Churchill, and after all Labour had been fully in favour of spending £12 million on the Festival of Britain (nearly ten times the cost of the Coronation), and leading politicians of all colours have generally liked to be associated with the monarchy. A longer lasting Labour government also means the Festival of Britain site on the South Bank is retained, as upon coming to power in 1951 Churchill's first act was to have the whole site bulldozed as it had been so associated with the Labour government.
Alfred Robens (1958-1973)
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Alfred Robens
Alfred Robens was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 15 years, from 1958 until 1973, the longest continuously serving Prime Minister since Pitt the Younger. He presided over a period of post-war prosperity and strong economic growth, which helped to secure his longevity in office. Electorally he swept all before him, winning three comfortable election victories and seeing off four Conservative Leaders of the Opposition. The Robens years also marked the peak of the so called ‘British Model’ of a strong welfare state, a progressive taxation system, indicative economic planning within a mixed economy.

The selection of the forty-seven year old Robens as Labour Party leader – and consequently Prime Minister - had come as a shock to most in Britain. The Chancellor Douglas Jay and Home Secretary Kenneth Younger both surprised colleagues by declining to contest the leadership. Instead three candidates threw their hats into the ring. The Minister of Education Hilary Marquand, the Minister of Labour Harold Wilson and the Foreign Secretary, Alfred Robens. Marquand claimed support from the social democratic right, and Gaitskell’s ideological heir. The parliamentary left rallied to Wilson as the Bevanite dauphin – the Welsh firebrand had succumbed to stomach cancer the previous year. Robens occupied the political centre within the Labour Party, and gained the support from solid trade unionist backbone of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Robens led Marquand on the first round, with Wilson trailing a poor third. Wilson’s support transferred en masse to Robens, who was elected by a healthy margin in the second round.

Alfred Robens had been born in 1910 Chorlton-cum-Medlock, Manchester, the son of a cotton salesman. He left school at 15 to work as an errand boy, but his career began when he joined the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Society as a clerk; he became a director when he was 22, one of the first worker/directors in the country. He was an official in the Union of Distributive and Allied Workers from 1935 to 1945; being certified medically unfit for military service in the Second World War, he served as a Manchester City Councillor from 1941 to 1945. Entering parliament in 1945 for the safe Northumberland mining seat of Wansbeck. He held a string of junior ministerial posts, including serving at the Ministry of Fuel and Power under Hugh Gaitskell. In he joined the cabinet as Minister of Labour (1951-1953) later serving as President of the Board of Trade (1953-1957) and Foreign Secretary (1957-1958).

On succeeding to the premiership 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 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.

Robens’ approach to cabinet government was quite relaxed, and he preferred to see himself as a Chairman of the Board rather than a Managing Director. His ministers received a much greater degree of freedom than under Gaitskell. Robens’ ministers were also known for their longevity, Jay remained Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1967, whilst Denis Healey served as Foreign Secretary for the entirety of Robens’ premiership. Harold Wilson was appointed Secretary of State for Economic Affairs after the 1958 election, and was the main driver in the government's use of indicative economic planning to ensure continued economic development throughout the 1960s.

Labour was returned to office in 1963 but with a majority reduced to just 30 seats. Significantly for the first time since 1945 the party had failed to gain at least 45% of the vote, and would almost certainly have lost power had it not been for a number of narrow wins in marginal seats and the strong performance of the Liberal Party. Labour’s victories through the 1960s were helped by the revival of the Liberal Party, first under Jo Grimond an later the young John Nott. In 1961 the Liberal and National Liberal parties reunified, contributing to the strong Liberal success. As a response to the government’s reduced majority Robens sought to obtain increase links with the opposition parties. He had a pre-occupation with grasping the ‘centre ground’, and often sought to gain at least informal support for much of his political programme from the Opposition. Indeed, by the late 60s it was a near constant political jibe that the Prime Minister had more in common with the Conservative frontbench than his own left wing backbenchers. This was demonstrated in Robens pushing through the 1967 Industrial Relations Act - which created the legal requirement of a ballot before strike action and banned the practice of secondary picketing - relying on the opposition abstentions to get the legislation through.

Robens largely left international affairs to his Foreign Secretary Denis Healey, who held office throughout his premiership. Robens developed Gaitskell’s vision for greater commonwealth co-operation, and Britain pursuing a ‘Third Way’ in foreign policy acting as a bridge between Europe and the United States. Despite the efforts of a younger, pro-European ministers like George Brown, Roy Jenkins and Dick Taverne, Robens and Healey decided not to apply for membership of the EEC. Realpolitik forced Healey to offer public support to the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, although he privately lambasted his American counterparts for their lack of strategic foresight. Robens was to resist strong American pressure to send British troops to the conflict.

The 1968 budget, the first from the new Chancellor Tony Crosland, saw generous increases in spending on education and pensions, and was strongly populist in tone. In party due to the budget's populatity, and due to a growing economy Labour was able to win a landslide victory at the October 1968 election, winning 49% of the vote, the highest in Labour’s history and a parliamentary majority not far of the landslide of 1945. The 1968 victory marked the highpoint of Robens premiership, and through the 1968-73 parliament there was much speculation of when Robens would eventually retire. His 60th birthday in 1970 was seen as the likely date, but came and went, and there remained the possibility that he would lead Labour into a fourth successive election. The results of the 1973 local elections, the first held with the newly created unitary authorities, saw a strong swing against Labour, and indicated the party's likely defeat at the election due within six months. Robens promptly announced he would resign as Prime Minister following the election of his successor as Labour leader.
Pleased to find Robens' prominence here. I just mentioned his name in another thread. It has been suggested that he might have succeeded Gaitskell in 1963 had he not got fed up with opposition and accepted the NCB Chairmanship in 1960.