Why was Churchhill re-elected in the 1951 election?
June 5, 2012 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Why was Churchhill re-elected in the 1951 election?

After the victory of the Labour government in the 1945 election and the introduction of the Welfare State - how and why was a Conservative government elected in 1951?
posted by Quillcards to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I'm not British and not a student of politics.

However, I've heard that Churchill was one of those people who was exceptionally good under a crisis - he came to power during World War II, and was consistently level-headed and a really good leader at a time of profound crisis. I imagine that won him an awful lot of good will, and that good will in turn affected people's voting choices. His problem, I've heard, was that when there wasn't a crisis he was only kind of meh as a leader.

I've seen much the same thing happen with another politician, so I buy it: Rudy Giuliani was celebrated for his strength of leadership during the 9/11 attacks on New York, and even I agree that he handled things unusually well at a time when a lot of people were panicking -- and he got a lot of good will from that, so much that there was a call for the city to suspend a city mandate on mayoral term limits just to let him have a third term in office. However -- before the 9/11 attacks, when he only had ordinary life to deal with, he was actually a controversial figure which a lot of New Yorkers didn't like at all, and was pretty much a sitting-duck politician heading for a life of post-service obscurity.

Some people are just really good in a crisis, and that wins them a lot of good will. Churchill's chance to prove himself in a crisis just came during the beginning of his time in office, and I'm sure that helped win him a longer stint as prime minister.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Labour was re-elected in 1950 but lost 80 seats in the process. '51 was an attempt that backfired to increase the labour majority - but in reality they only lost 22 seats in that election.

So a better question is why did labour lose so many seats in '50. Also it looks like per Wiki the Conservatives were not campaigning in '50 on a platform of rolling back the welfare state, just to not expand it further.

BTW the popular vote is really interesting. Labor actually only polled about 2.5% lower in '50 than in '45 but lost most of their majority - perhaps an unintended side-effect of attempts to reform constituency boundaries in '48 and '49?
posted by JPD at 7:35 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

This looks like a good summary of the political situation that led to Churchill's return to power in 1951.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:00 AM on June 5, 2012

It was more the Labour government falling apart rather than the Conservatives triumphing. Deep divisions over Britain's post war rearmament and involvement in Korea as well as disagreements over the Welfare State had driven a lot of Labour's big hitters out of the cabinet.

There was also a huge sense of exhaustion, most of the Labour cabinet had been serving in government from the formation of the cross party wartime coalition in 1940, even PM Clement Atlee was briefly hospitalised towards the end of his term.
posted by brilliantmistake at 8:26 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think its also worth noting that there were a lot of people in 1945 who thought they could vote Labour, and support the Welfare state etc, but that Churchill would win anyway. He was seen by many as having saved Britain, and there was some shock when he lost. I suspect he regained voters at the next election as a result.
posted by prentiz at 9:00 AM on June 5, 2012

I think JPD is onto something with the idea that the redrawing of constituency boundaries played a bigger factor than is generally thought. Remember that "Churchill" wasn't elected (except for his own seat, which he had also won in 1945), but that the election came down to the local Conservative candidates outpolling the local Labour candidates. brilliantmistake's point that the Labour PMs were riven by disagreement over big policy issues is important, too.

As for why Churchill got the nod as PM over any other Conservative politician (and indeed there wasn't any real challenge), obviously the "he saved England" thing was big. He also was seen as someone who could be relied upon to assemble a strong Cabinet.

Churchill had also (unusually) remained as Leader of the Opposition while Labour was in power, and had won Conservatives' praise for the way he handled that role. Although the expected thing would have been that, after the Conservatives lost power, the PM would step down, most of the party including Anthony Eden (Churchill's logical successor and later PM himself) encouraged him to remain as the party leader.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:27 AM on June 5, 2012

Labour received slightly more votes in total than the Tories in 1951, but the constituency system, with its stacking of votes in urban areas, and the inability of the Liberals to contest every seat worked in the Tories' favour.

Anyway, brilliantmistake has it: British governments tend to get knackered, and Labour was knackered by 1951; the impetus that drove the early manifesto commitments had faded, and events (dear boy) took over. The Tories had a host of new MPs elected in 1950, and looked like the fresher party.

Most of all, the Churchill who had warned of Gestapo-style enforcement of the welfare state in 1945 went into the 1950/51 elections arguing that the Tories would be better at managing what Labour had put in place, an argument that has run through British electoral politics ever since.
posted by holgate at 9:36 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. The Labour Party was deeply divided. Bevan had resigned in April 1951 in protest at the introduction of prescription charges, which he saw as an attack on the NHS. The basic issue here was that the country was still in postwar recovery mode, still coming to terms with its reduced position in the world, and struggling to afford the Welfare State at the same time as the Korean War and a nuclear weapons programme.

2. The Liberal Party was also in deep trouble, only managing to put up candidates in about 100 seats, with the result that a lot of the old Liberal vote went over to the Conservatives. Churchill did his best to pick up Liberal votes by declaring that Liberals and Conservatives were united in a 'broad harmony of thought' against the common enemy, socialism.

3. The Conservative Party had an electoral trump card, in the form of a pledge to build 300,000 new homes every year. This was extremely popular, so much so that they upped the target to 400,000 homes a year in 1963. Unfortunately this emphasis on quantity over quality resulted in a lot of shoddily built high-rise blocks, storing up trouble for the future.

4. This was the beginning of the era of consensus politics, often referred to as Butskellism. In the long term, this political consensus was doomed to collapse, leading to the emergence of Thatcherism and all the consequences we're still living through today. But in the short term it meant that Churchill could denounce the perils of socialism (nowadays we would call this 'appealing to his base') while still reassuring voters that he was committed to full employment and didn't intend to dismantle the Welfare State.
posted by verstegan at 11:28 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you compare the electoral maps for 1945, 1950 and 1951, you'll see where the Tories took seats back: outer London stretching right up to Peterborough, East Anglia, the Midlands, parts of the West Country and what's now called the M62 corridor between Liverpool and Hull -- not so dissimilar from the swing regions in recent elections.

(Here's a nice little piece on the divided Liberal party, including how Churchill personally intervened to keep Helena Bonham Carter's grandmother in her West Yorkshire seat.)
posted by holgate at 12:12 PM on June 5, 2012

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