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Winning against Winnie

How did Clement Attlee, Labour’s ‘invisible man’ snatch victory from wartime hero Winston Churchill in 1945? A new book comes up with a few answers

23 July, 2020 — By Conrad Landin

Clement Attlee celebrating victory in 1945 A Labour election campaign poster

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this Sunday, July 26, “an empty taxi pulled up outside No 10 Downing Street, and Mr Attlee got out”.

Though most likely not said by Winston Churchill, to whom it is widely attributed, this reflection deftly captures one of the most remarkable aspects of the 1945 general election. In spite of having led Labour for the previous 10 years, including five as deputy PM in the wartime coalition, Clement Richard Attlee was dubbed the “invisible man”.

Yet Attlee secured a thumping victory against the revered and charismatic Churchill. He formed Labour’s first majority government, which created the NHS and the modern welfare state. And that victory and government would re-define the political fighting ground until the equally significant election of 1979.

In Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour, veteran Westminster councillor Paul Dimoldenberg asks just how this “very modest man” pulled it off – in spite of leadership challenges and much self-doubt. The author respectfully counterposes alternative readings of history throughout. But his sympathies appear to lie with the argument that a “radical patriotism” – and not an extreme socialist awakening – led Labour to victory. Though overly reliant on secondary source material, this book paints a vivid portrait of a revolution just a little too early to be televised.

The battlegrounds of 1945 were instead the public meeting, the press and the wireless. Of Labour’s 10 radio broadcasts, Attlee only addressed the nation once – with other slots taken on by party frontbenchers explaining each aspect of their programme in turn.

Churchill, on the other hand, took the helm in four of the Tories’ 10, in line with what was, at the time, perhaps Britain’s most presidential campaign to date. The future chancellor Iain Macleod, who stood in Scotland’s Western Isles, told his voters that “A Vote for MACLEOD is a Vote for CHURCHILL”. He came a miserable third to the re-elected Labour incumbent.

The book’s title reflects a story related by Tribunite MP George Strauss, who observed posters bearing the legend “Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour” at an open-air rally in south London, where the PM was nonetheless “warmly received”. But in view of how closely the Tories chose to align their campaign to their leader, the author’s assessment of the nation’s continued affection for Churchill is perhaps too generous. Paul describes how attendees at Churchill’s famous Walthamstow rally heckled, rather constructively: “What about jobs?” and “What about houses?” The most famous roars, however, were the more forthright cries of “We want Labour!”.

Though Guilty Men, the anti-appeasement polemic co-authored (as “Cato”) by Michael Foot, gets a cursory mention, there is little discussion of the impact of foreign policy upon the election result. But Victor Gollancz reprinted Guilty Men 14 times in the five weeks after it was published in July 1940, in spite of it being banned by major booksellers. Five years before the election, there was clearly a public appetite for a sharp invective against the Tories’ military failures.

And in spite of Guilty Men’s cross-party authorship and total exoneration of Churchill, it was received as a political document laying the ground for the unseating of the Tories. So much so that The Left Was Never Right by Tory MP Quintin Hogg was described in its blurb as “a devastating rejoinder… to the systematic series of attacks upon the Tory party and its leaders by Left Wing publicists in preparation for the coming General Election”.

Hogg reserves his greatest vitriol for Guilty Men, alongside Your MP by the Marxist Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham (“Gracchus”), the cover of which encouraged voters to look up their Tory representatives in the index ahead of holding them to account at the ballot box.

Indeed, though the 1945 manifesto is best known for its domestic programme, it opened with an assessment of the war. It went on to call for the “great war-time association of the British Commonwealth with the USA and the USSR” to be continued in peace, chiding the Tories for being “so scared of Russia that they missed the chance to establish a partnership which might well have prevented the war”.
Paul is much stronger on the Beveridge report.

The story of how this document laid the intellectual foundations for the welfare state is a familiar one. Less known is its propagandistic role in convincing the British public of the case for social reform. Paul quotes a Mass Observation contributor who reported that a bus conductor, on seeing him reading the report, asked: “I suppose you haven’t got a spare copy of that?” Crucially, this interest extended to the forces, for whom a special edition of the Beveridge report was produced – before being withdrawn on Churchill’s orders. The forces vote would be crucial to Labour winning the peace – in no small part because, as the 1945-elected Labour MP Konni Zilliacus proclaimed, the Tories had lost the last one.

As in the Second World War, the author notes in conclusion, the Tories have embraced economic interventionism in the fight against Covid-19. Will they once again find the tide turning against them? If a week is a long time in politics, as another of the forty-fivers would become famous for observing, the spring of 2020 might soon look like a lifetime.

Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour. By Paul Dimoldenberg. £5.66, independently published with all proceeds to Westminster foodbanks.

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