History of the Labour Party


War and the 1945 landslide

Clem AttleeWith the disastrous election result in 1931, Labour spent almost a decade recovering lost ground.  The Party's new generation, including Ernest 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 Ernest Bevin, who was made Minister for Labour.

PictureWhen 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.

The wilderness years


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.

The Harold Wilson era

Harold WilsonLabour 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.

The 1970s

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. 

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