How useful is the concept of a 'people's war' in explaining Labour's election victory

Topics: Labour Party, Conservative Party, Tony Blair Pages: 7 (2371 words) Published: January 12, 2014
How useful is the concept of a ‘people’s war’ for explaining the Labour Party’s election victory? The Labour Party’s election victory in 1945 is often regarded as a watershed moment in terms of British political history. The establishment of a welfare state, as a result of socialist reforms that were introduced by the newly elected Labour government, saw, what can arguably be described as a radical overhaul of British politics and society. Labour’s unprecedented landslide victory is commonly attributed to a transition in terms of public opinion that occurred as a result of wartime conditions. As a result of the entire British public being affected by total war, it led to the creation of the concept of a ‘people’s war’, as the cooperation of the masses was regarded as vital in contributing to the war effort. In addition, government policies during the war could be described as War Socialism in their nature, as the Coalition Government exercised controls over the entire economy. Therefore, it has been argued that a swing to the left in terms of public opinion occurred as a consequence of the effect that the war had on the people of Britain and it was this shift in opinion that helped to bring the Labour Party to victory in the election.1 However, the actuality of there being such a dramatic shift to the left has been brought into question and is apparent that the concept of a ‘people’s war’ cannot be the only reason in explaining Labour’s election victory in 1945. The reaction to the outcome of the 1945 General Election by contemporary political commentators was one of mild surprise, as ‘the Conservatives were widely expected to win the 1945 election too, not least because they were led by Churchill, previously the Prime Minister of the victorious wartime Coalition Government.’2 However, Paul Addison argues that the outcome of the election should not have been considered a shock at the time, as the creation of a ‘people’s war’ due to wartime conditions resulted in a trend that ‘was essentially one towards left-wing attitudes, with the Labour Party as the natural beneficiary’3 Issues like rationing, air raids and evacuation affected the entirety of the population and thus a socialist society in principal was maintained during the wartime period through the sacrifice of the public due to government regulations and restrictions. Although, it was clearly not an egalitarian society, it is arguably apparent that society was becoming more cohesive through shared experiences of the impact that the war was having on civilian life. Arguably, the shared experience of sacrifice for the greater good, gave rise to an increase in the approval of implementing social reform policies as they would ensure the provision of good and services for the public during the war and therefore would have been regarded as the best form of policy to adapt after the war. Thus, the Labour Party’s proposals for collectivism, a Keynesian mixed economy and a welfare state, would have had significant appeal to the electorate. The increased support for social reform policies at a national level during the wartime period can be seen in the mass agreement in the proposals set out in the White Paper titled Social Insurance and Allied Services, more commonly referred to as the Beveridge Report of 1942, which was one of the first texts that included the principles of what is now regarded as a welfare state. Beveridge’s report ‘may well have been the only official publication in the history of the British government that most of the electorate had heard of,’4 and its popularity, arguably, highlighted the growing awareness of the public on the state of Britain as ‘the war effort also hurled together people of different social backgrounds in a series of massive upheavals caused by bombing, conscription, and the migration of workers to new centres of war industry.’5 The concept of a people’s war and the sacrifices that the public were expected to make, stimulated a...

Bibliography: Adelman, Paul, The Rise of the Labour Party, 1880-1945 (London; New York: Longman, 1996)
Addison, Paul, The Road To 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (London: Pimlico, 1994)
Addison, Paul, ‘Why Churchill Lost in 1945’, BBC History (2011) [accessed 9 December 2013]
Brooke, Stephen, Labour 's War: The Labour Party During the Second World War (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992)
Cato [pseud.], Guilty Men (London: V. Gollancz, 1940)
Clarke, Peter, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-200 (London: Pimlico, 2004)
Craig, F.W.S., ed., British General Election Manifestos 1900-1974 (London: Macmillan, 1975)
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Thorpe, Andrew, Parties At War: Political Organization in Second World War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
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