When Labour’s hopes of a far bigger majority were dashed

EDP front page for 1950/51 elections

EDP front page for 1950/51 elections - Credit: Archant

The General Election is May is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent history. Over the coming weeks Political Editor Annabelle Dickson will be looking back at the most significant elections since the second world war. This week we start with the early 1950s, when Labour hung onto power in 1950, before a second election in 1951 saw the Conservatives take back control.

EDP front page for 1950/51 elections

EDP front page for 1950/51 elections - Credit: Archant

Just five years after the end of the Second World War, the 1950 election was the first poll after a full term of Labour government.

Clement Attlee, who had created the National Health Service and nationalised major industries and utilities, won it with a majority of just five seats – a huge contrast to the election of 1945 in which he had achieved a 146-seat majority,

It was the closest election for 100 years.

The 1950 campaign was fought around future nationalisation of other sectors and industries, which was supported by the Labour Party, and opposed by the Tories.


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With no decisive victory for Labour on February 23, 1950, and with many of its MPs increasingly frail and finding it hard to turn up for votes, a second election was held just 20 months later on October 25, 1951, when Labour hoped to increase its majority.

It tried to fight the second election by accusing wartime leader Winston Churchill of being unable to keep the peace, but the Conservatives had more money and campaign staff, and most of the press of their side. Despite Labour polling the most votes, the Conservatives won the election with a majority of 16 seats.

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John Charmley, British history expert at the University of East Anglia, described the outcome of the 1951 election as 'typically British'.

He said that while most of Europe was very unstable, with the cold war developing and Eastern Europe falling to a communist government, in the 1951 election wartime leader Winston Churchill was returned to power.

'Across Europe the red menace is on the rise and in England they are voting for an 80-year-old Tory,' he added.

Professor Charmley pointed out that many of Attlee's innovations were accepted by the Conservatives, with the exception of the nationalisation of iron and steel industry.

'It is a wonderful example of just how different we were from our next- door neighbours.'

He said that unlike mainland Europe, which was riven with ideological differences, the war had pulled the country together.

Next week: we look at the 1964 election, when Labour returned to power under Harold Wilson.

Do you remember this campaign or a subsequent big election? Were you involved in a past campaign? Email annabelle.dickson@archant.co.uk.

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