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1945-1991 - Labour During the Cold War

With the disastrous election result in 1931, Labour spent almost a decade recovering lost ground. The Party's new generation, including Ernie Bevin, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the academic Hugh Dalton, led the campaign to renew Labour's fortunes. Clement Attlee, a major in the First World War who had worked in the London slums, became leader in 1935. With the invasion of Poland by Germany in September 1939, and the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940, Labour was invited to join the government in a war-time coalition. Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, the former minister for health, entered Churchill's cabinet, and were quickly followed by Ernie Bevin, who was made minister for labour.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Churchill called a general election for July. Labour's manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, captured the public mood for change. It argued that Britain must not return to the poverty and lack of work of the 1930s. Labour pledged to destroy the five 'evil giants' of want, squalor, disease, ignorance and unemployment. The result was a landslide to Labour, who won 393 seats in Westminster. For the first time, Labour had a majority and had full opportunity to implement its programme of reform.

By 1950 the Labour government had achieved most of its pledges in Let Us Face the Future. Indeed the party appeared to have run out of steam. The election of that year saw Labour's majority cut to only five, and the new government could not remain in office for long. Attlee dissolved Parliament again in October 1951 and by a quirk of the British electoral system, Labour gained its highest ever share of the vote (48.8 per cent) but won fewer seats than the Tories.

Labour was returned to office on a platform of modernisation and reform. The party's manifesto, The New Britain, focused on the need for economic and social transformation. In many ways, this is what Wilson's administration achieved. The period was one of openness and social liberalism, with the legalisation of many taboo practices such as divorce, homosexuality and abortion, and the ending of capital punishment.

However, the failure of the government to devalue the pound until 1967 is believed to have restricted the level of economic growth and the new Department for Economic Affairs never succeeded in implementing its National Plan. The party's majority was increased to 97 in 1966, when Wilson went to the country asking for a mandate to finish the job. With this endorsement, he was able to implement reforms on a range of issues including steel nationalisation and the development of comprehensive education. Wilson's 1964-70 governments achieved much of what they set out to do.

Against pollsters' predictions, Labour lost the 1970 General Election to the Conservatives under Ted Heath, who in 1971 fulfilled his ambition to take Britain into the Common Market. However, far from delivering his promise to 'cut prices at a stroke', Heath's term saw rising inflation and unemployment, and an energy crisis leading to industrial action and the three-day week.

Harold Wilson was returned as Prime Minister in February 1974, but in a minority government which put our legislative programme at the mercy of Liberals and Ulster Unionists. Wilson called another election in October 1974 to consolidate his position, which produced a Labour majority of four. After making modest progress in stabilising the country, Harold Wilson shocked both party and nation by resigning as Prime Minister in March 1976, claiming that he had 'always planned to retire at 60'. Not long after Wilson's retirement, however, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer's disease began to be apparent. He rarely appeared in public after 1985 and died in 1995.

Wilson was replaced as premier by his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, who had also served as Chancellor and Home Secretary in previous Wilson administrations (the only PM to hold all three major offices of state). Callaghan presided over one of the most difficult periods of Government for Labour, with rampant inflation, crippling industrial action led by increasingly militant trade unions, and culminating in the disastrous 'winter of discontent' on 1978-9, when rubbish went uncollected and dead bodies unburied. The 1979 General Election saw the Conservatives under new leader Margaret Thatcher returned with a majority of 44 seats.

With Labour heavily defeated in the 1979 election, the party began a new period of soul-searching. Internal debates about the party constitution dominated, and led eventually to the forming of a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party, in 1981. Michael Foot, the veteran left-winger, was elected leader but he was hampered by divisions within the party and proved unable to reverse Labour's decline in support. With Labour moving further to the left, the 1983 election resulted in a crushing defeat. Labour gained 27.6 per cent, its lowest showing since 1918 and not much above the Liberal/SDP Alliance.

Hope for a revival in Labour's fortunes came from Welsh MP Neil Kinnock, who replaced Michael Foot as leader in 1983. Kinnock first sought to sideline the extreme left within the party, such as the group Militant, and then to restore Labour's image with the general public. His speech to the 1985 Party Conference, where he attacked Militant from the platform, was seen as a sign of the new Labour leader's courage and commitment to change. This was followed by changes to Labour's image, headed by a new Campaigns and Communications directorate under Peter Mandelson.

A visible sign of the changes afoot was the replacement of the party's emblem - the red flag - by a red rose at the 1986 conference. Even with such changes, Kinnock was unable to recover much ground and Labour still lost the 1987 election heavily. More thorough-going reform was necessary and therefore the party began a process of policy review. The outcome, Meet the Challenge, Make the Change, ended Labour's commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, high taxation and old-style nationalisation.

Labour's fourth successive election defeat was a major shock to the party. Kinnock's successor, Scottish lawyer John Smith, promised to continue the process of reform, including tackling the trade union block. At the 1993 Party Conference Smith won the vote on One Member One Vote (OMOV), removing direct union representation in parliamentary selections, by the smallest of margins, and largely due to the last-minute speech by John Prescott. If he was careful in his dealings with the party, in the Commons Smith was less restrained.

Immediately after the election the Tories were wrong-footed by the crisis in sterling and exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Black Wednesday as 16 September 1992 became known, was a gift to Smith, who used his considerable parliamentary skills to attack the Conservatives. With record-breaking (for the time) local election results in 1994, John Smith was rightly optimistic about the future of the party. "A chance to serve , that is all we ask", Smith told a gathering of Labour supporters on 11 May 1994. The event was to be his last. Early the next morning he suffered a massive heart attack. Labour leader John Smith died in London after two serious heart attacks. Just as with Gaitskell in 1963, Labour had lost a leader on the verge of power. Smith was widely expected to lead Labour to victory at the next general election and become prime minister.

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Page last modified: 25-06-2016 20:58:06 ZULU