Mood for Change

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Review of 'A New Dawn', Norman Howard, Politico's £18.99

Before the 1997 landslide the most significant election victory for the Labour Party was that of 1945 when Labour, unexpectedly at least for media commentators, beat wartime leader Churchill and was returned with a decisive majority of 180.

Much has been written about the significance of that victory and what it meant in practice for the people who voted Labour, often servicemen and women, in summer 1945.

Paul Addison's The Road to 1945 portrays Labour leader Clement Attlee as an almost Blair-like figure. Attlee was a barrister from an upper middle class family. Yet he was a determined socialist, of a reformist character, and the impact of the 1945-51 Labour government was considerably different to the Blair years from 1997.

Ian Birchall, in Bailing Out the System, draws attention to the actual record of Attlee's government. Within days of being elected the government was sending in troops to break a strike at the Surrey Docks. While the nationalisation of the coal industry and the mines and the creation of the NHS were real steps forward and at last a gain for working people, they were also key elements of a much-needed modernisation of British capitalism. Such policies had not been the subject of dispute in the wartime coalition government where Labour and Tory worked together, with Churchill as prime minister and Attlee as his deputy.

The great strength of Norman Howard's book on 1945 is that it provides a detailed non-academic account of the election campaign of that year, and the discussions and debates that led to it from a Labour, and broadly left wing, point of view. To this extent it fills a surprising gap in historical knowledge.

The election was 60 years ago but the book describes disputes with Labour's National Executive Committee (rather more powerful then than now), the influence of key union figures like Ernie Bevin of the TGWU, and expulsions of left wingers for going against party policy. This much is familiar.

In the late 1930s a range of Labour left wingers from Nye Bevan to Stafford Cripps were excluded from the Labour Party for periods, for advocating united working class action (with the Communist Party) against fascism. But this was not New Labour. Come the election of 1945 practically all those who had spoken out against Labour Party policy or stood against Labour were readmitted and endorsed as Labour candidates.

Howard provides great detail about how the 1945 campaign worked. It had been ten years since the last election where the Tories had been returned with a large majority. During the war there was an electoral truce between the major parties. This meant that Labour's election machine barely existed when the election was called after victory in Europe in the summer of 1945.

There were few opinion polls, under wartime restrictions papers were restricted to four or six pages (albeit with huge circulations by today's standards), there was no TV and only two stations broadcast by BBC radio. The main election propaganda allowed was unspun party political broadcasts - speeches read directly to microphone by leading politicians.

Basic things like the electoral roll were far from perfect, but the mood for change in the country, the desire to 'win the peace' after winning the war, was reflected in July 1945 with a huge Labour majority. Churchill's suggestion that if elected Labour would become a new Gestapo did not meet the mood of electors.

Howard provides details of the 1945 manifestos of the three main parties, and a breakdown of electoral statistics. He also uncovers some interesting new points. For example, he demonstrates that while soldiers abroad, who had a postal vote, probably did vote Labour in quite large numbers, they were in no constituency enough to give Labour a majority. It was a general mood to the left that did that.

Reading more widely about 1945 is essential, and readers may not subscribe to some of Howard's views - for example that right wing union leader Ernie Bevin was a socialist - but as a guide to what happened in the 1945 election campaign from a Labour point of view the book is both fascinating and invaluable.