For all the misty-eyed nostalgia surrounding the 1945 Labour Government, there is little time devoted to its downfall, from which the party would be out of office for 13 years. The 1955 election, in particular, seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of electoral history.
Today marks the 62nd anniversary of Attlee’s final election – and on closer inspection, there are parallels to be made with the current plight of the party. Indeed, the clash between Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell in the run up was as bitter and divisive as anything seen throughout the 1980s and today.
Labour suffered a cruel defeat in the October 1951 election. Although the party received 48.8% of the vote and 230,000 more votes than the Tories, they ended up on the opposition benches. The electoral geography had thrown out a Conservative majority of 17.
Once in office, the Tories quickly ‘stole Labour’s clothes’, as the country began to enjoy the post-war consensus of ‘Butskellism’. This consensus included a commitment to Keynesian economics, a mixed economy with nationalised major industries, the establishment of the NHS and increased welfare provision. Emerging from the depths of wartime despair was a genuine hope and expectation of progress. Their period in office coincided with a golden age in terms of rising living standards as rationing finally ended and full employment was sustained.
On the 6th April 1955, Churchill was able to hand over the reins to Eden, whose own approval rating was at 73%. On taking office, he immediately called a general election for 26 May 1955, to seek his own mandate. For Labour, the election came during a damaging period of infighting. With Attlee entering his 20th year as leader of the party, the leadership team had not been renewed since defeat 1951. As the factionalism of the Gaitskell and Bevan camps increased, there was the added pressure of the big four looking to seize the crown, Bevin, Dalton, Cripps and Morrison.
The roots of the power struggle can be found are in the end period of the 1945 Labour government. Nye Bevan, a self-taught miner from solid working class stock was pitted against Hugh Gaitskell, a public schoolboy and Oxford University educated Keynesian economist. Gaitskell believed Bevan’s ‘lower than vermin’ comments had damaged the party and contributed to Labour losing seats in the Feb 1950 election. When Bevan was kept on as Health Secretary, after a narrow 3 seat victory, Gaitskell lamented Attlee for missing an opportunity to replace him and wilting under the pressure.
Nevertheless, Gaitskell still endured a huge amount of respect for Bevan, and identified him as ‘the most effective speaker on the front bench and indeed the house’. However, the feeling was not reciprocated. Bevan never hid his disdain for ‘the economist’ Gaitskell, and underestimated his political abilities. Bevan felt that he hadn’t risen through the labour movement in the proper and conventional way.
In October 1950, Attlee’s chancellor Stafford Cripps was forced to step down through ill health. Attlee did not hesitate to appoint Gaitskell as chancellor. Bevan was hugely disappointed to have been overlooked and had assumed that Cripps would have recommended him for the role. He launched into an angry tirade against Attlee and wrote him a letter stating ‘I believe the appointment is a great mistake’ and ‘these key positions should go to people who have standing in the movement.’ Attlee responded by pushing Bevan out, making him ‘Minister for Labour’ in January 1951.
The rivalry would reach feverpitch just before the 1951 Budget, when Gaitskell proposed bringing in prescription charges for NHS patients. Both men threatened to resign over the issue. On the eve of the budget, in a tense cabinet meeting, Dalton noted that ‘Nye’s hatred of him glared out all the time’. Gaitskell asked the cabinet for support on the prescription issue, but had promised to resign quietly without fuss if he was defeated. Dalton praised Gaitskill’s ‘high moral attitude in comparison to Nye’.
Ultimately, only one junior minister, Harold Wilson, backed Bevan. The cabinet knew the government could not survive the loss of a chancellor.
Gaitskell’s budget was well received in the country and endorsed by the cabinet. Bevan continued to push for a concession on the prescription charges, and was supported by the left wing press. A vicious Tribune editorial by Michael Foot compared Gaitskell to Philip Snowden – the ultimate accusation of ‘red toryism’ within the party. Snowden had been the labour chancellor who joined the National government in 1931 and had been anathema to the party ever since.
Bevan finally resigned on 23rd April 1951. When James Callaghan had attempted to talk him out of it, Bevan replied angrily ‘Hugh is a Tory!’. He bemoaned that the party had become too focussed on economics management;
‘Take economic planning away from the Treasury. They know nothing about it. The great difficulty with the Treasury is that they think they move men about when they move pieces of paper about. It is what I have described over and over again as “whistle-blowing” planning. It has been perfectly obvious on several occasions that there are too many economists advising the Treasury, and now we have the added misfortune of having an economist in the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself’’
Read the full transcript of his resignation speech here
Bevan’s resignation galvanised the left, with Crosland, Foot and Castle leading a group of ‘Bevanites’, united against a common enemy in the ‘Tory traitor’ Gaitskell. After losing the 1951 Election, Labour returned to the opposition benches. Bevan declined to run for deputy leadership and shadow cabinet, instead deciding to exert have influence from the backbenches. He launched his own manifesto ‘In Place of Fear’ which was received well by the grassroots. Much like the influence of Militant and Momentum in later years, the centrist MP’s began to accuse the ‘Bevanites’ of being a party within a party.
In April 1955, Eden saw an opportunity and immediately called for his own mandate. Labour opened their manifesto with a daunting assessment of the future:
‘As we in Britain prepare to go to the poll, the Hydrogen Bomb looms over all mankind. What can we do to meet that menace? The existence of this terrible weapon on both sides of the Iron Curtain maintains an uneasy balance under the threat of mutual destruction. But deterrents can at best only give us a breathing space. We are faced with the choice between world cooperation and world annihilation. The time is short.
Just two months before the election, Bevan had successfully led a rebellion of 64 MPs against Attlee, over the nuclear deterrent. The whip was withdrawn from him, before being reinstated a month before the election. During the campaign Bevan attempted to present a united front. He made virtue of the fact that Labour had used their period in opposition to debate issues with each other and the wider public. In a speech in Woodford, Churchill accused Bevan of being a ‘voluble careerist’ and ‘the politician who causes the most anxiety to every friend and ally of Britain all over the world.’ To highlight the division, the Tories attacked Bevan in 10% of their election addresses. After Labour’s defeat, the Tory press declared Bevan ‘the Tories best asset’.
The campaign was noted for the apathy with which people approached it. The Tory programme ‘Of Peace and Progress ’had made few campaign promises. On election day, the Daily Mirror went with the headline ‘Don’t Let The Tories Cheat Our Children’, urging its readers to elect Labour on the basis that it had ‘built a better Britain for us all’. The result was seen as a forgone conclusion throughout and turnout fell by 5.8%. The fall in turnout from 82.6 % to 76.8 % was the biggest in any election between 1918 and 1997.
The Tories won with a majority of 60. Labour lost 1.5 million votes from 1951, with Michael Foot, Anthony Crosland and Woodrow Wyatt losing their seats in the process. The Conservatives became the first government in 90 years to improve their performance at an election. The Tories polled well in the north. They won six of the nine seats in Liverpool, and four out of nine in Manchester, with Oldham and Rochdale also returning a Tory MP.
The Labour share of the vote in 1955, at 46.4 %, remained high and has only been surpassed once since – in 1966.
In the post-election aftermath, The Sunday Times assessed that ‘The Labour Party had reaped the fruits of its divisions, but more than that, it has patently failed to inspire even its own supporters with faith in its dynamic programme.’ Harold Wilson led a review into the party organisational structure failings concluding that it was at ‘the penny farthing stage in a jet propelled era’.
After the result, Attlee intended to retire immediately. However the Labour hierarchy asked him to stay on as leader in order to heal some of the divisions. Attlee sunk into his chair, utterly shattered, daunted at the prospect of another Parliamentary term as leader.