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Labour’s first majority government

Seventy years on we remember the fearless radicals who swept to power
Mark Metcalf, Sunday, July 26th, 2015


Trade unionists belonging to one of Unite’s predecessor union’s were the bedrock of a radical post war Labour government that swept to power at the 1945 General Election exactly 70 years today (Sunday July 26).

 

Led by Clement Atlee, Labour, having demonstrated their economic competence in a coalition government during the war, won many of the returning armed forces votes.

 

By capturing 48 per cent of the vote Labour brushed aside Winston Churchill’s Tories to win a 145 seat majority.

 

For Labour it was its first majority government and, unlike the Tories in the 1930s – who had put extra taxes on food and forced cuts in wages, unemployment benefit and housing – used it to introduce urgently needed reforms.

 

“Pre-war methods are useless as they will lead back to unemployment,” said Ernest Bevin, who served as minister of labour between May 1940 and May 1945, and who the day after the election resigned the post he had held for 23 years as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) one of Unite’s predecessor unions.

 

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Ernest Bevin (left) with Clement Atlee, 1945

 

 

By July 26, 1945, Bevin had been an MP for over five years. The former docker recaptured his Central Wandsworth seat with a majority of 5,174. He was to be appointed foreign secretary, where he oversaw a speedy withdrawal from India two years later before disappointing some people by working to produce a British atomic bomb.

 

Joining Bevin at Westminster were 35 other members of the TGWU including Arthur Greenwood in Wakefield and who also became a member of the new cabinet that included as education minister the radical Jarrow MP Ellen Wilkinson who 10 years prior had argued Labour had lost the 1935 General Election because it was “not socialist enough.” Nine other MPs who were members of the TGWU were also appointed to positions in the new government.

 

Nationalised

 

Labour nationalised around a fifth of the economy including the Bank of England, coal mines, electricity, gas and the railways. The National Health Service was also created to provide a comprehensive range of free health services that are being currently being destroyed by the current government.

 

However in 1947 when Britain faced an economic crisis, Labour introduced an unpopular wage freeze. Despite this the early radicalism meant Labour remained popular and the party won a five seat majority at the 1950 general election.

 

Labour then increased its share of the vote to a record level ever for the party of 48.8 per cent at the 1951 general election. However under Britain’s first past the post system it was the Churchill’s Tories, backed by the National Liberals, who took power with a slim majority.

 

It was a sure sign of the popularity of Labour’s policies that the new government retained the NHS and the nationalised industries before embarking on a popular public house building programme.

 

Harold Wilson had been appointed as the youngest member of the Atlee government in 1947 and the Huddersfield MP was to be the Labour leader the next time the party returned to power in 1964.

 

Seventy years on there is much we can all learn from their fearless, radical approach.

 

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