The lessons of Labour’s 1945 victory

This summer will see the 70th anniversary of the election of the 1945 Labour government, which carried out massive improvements for the working class. Tony Mulhearn, former Liverpool Labour city councillor and 2015 Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition parliamentary candidate, contrasts this event with Labour’s recent election defeat and the aftermath.

After the Tory victory in this year’s general election, Britain’s rich and powerful have been desperate to assuage the discomfort that even Ed Miliband’s very timid proposals in the election caused them.

Slanders pour down like a Niagara, particularly on Len McCluskey who suggested that Andy Burnham might be the best of a bad bunch of leadership contenders (although not a left winger in reality).

When he suggested that Unite would reconsider funding Labour, the hysteria was ratcheted up several notches. Press comment confirmed that the appetite of the ruling class for the blood of those who challenge its privileged position has not diminished over time.

Typical was the Mail on Sunday: “Red Len holds Labour to ransom.”Political undertaker Jim Murphy, fresh from driving a stake through the heart of dead Scottish Labour, takes the prize with his barb: ‘Support from Len McCluskey is the kiss of death for any potential leader.’ Satan accusing Beelzebub of being Godless.

‘Pus-filled hate’

Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, wrote: “When it comes to eliminating even a mild threat to their material interests, the privileged classes set in motion all the prejudices and confusion which humanity is dragging in its wagon train behind it.”

And, to paraphrase him, ‘in the assault upon the left all the ruling forces, the government, the courts, the intelligence service, the officialdom, the capitalist parties, their press, constitute one colossal unit of pus-filled hate’.

John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, wrote Labour’s manifesto. He is described as the philosopher at the heart of Labour’s policy planning, and he is clearly buying into this hysteria.

Viewing the wreckage he said: “this could be the greatest crisis the Labour Party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale.”


He believes his duty lies in being brutally honest about what it got wrong. Cruddas states: “Labour only wins when it has a unifying, compelling, national, popular story to tell. It has only really won in 1945 [a country fit for heroes], in 1964 [on the scientific and technological challenges of the 1960s] and in 1997 [on economic and social modernisation, a compelling vision of national renewal].”

Careful examination of this gobbledegook at least shows he recognises that the programme of 1945 had massive appeal resulting in the election of that great reforming Labour government, led by Clem Attlee – although he lumps Blair’s government in with it!

Cruddas is the modern Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca who looks into Ingrid Bergman’s unfaithful eyes and murmurs ‘never mind, we’ll always have 1945,’ then walks off in an entirely different direction with a former adversary.

In the general election of July 1945, Labour was returned with a majority for the first time. The achievements of Attlee’s post-war government are well recorded. During its six years in office the National Health Service was established and coal, iron, steel and the railways were all nationalised.

When Labour’s victory was announced on 26 July 1945 the mythical lady in Claridges, on hearing the news of Labour’s landslide victory, exclaimed: “This is terrible, the country will never accept it!” Thus was encapsulated the shock to the ruling class of losing their god given right to rule.

Call for change

With 48% of the vote, Labour gained a Parliamentary majority of 146 seats. The opening paragraph of the manifesto was a clarion call for change. It stated:

‘”The Labour Party is a socialist party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.” While it drew short of a rounded out programme for complete socialist change, it charted a course in that direction. For instance it said that:

“There are basic industries ripe and over-ripe for public ownership and management in the direct service of the nation”.

It then proposed public ownership of the fuel and power industries and of inland transport. It recognised that co-ordination of transport services by rail, road, air and canal could not be achieved without a unified plan and that was impossible without public ownership. Public ownership of iron and steel was also a target.

It confirmed the role of the state in providing affordable quality housing which, it stated, will be one of the greatest and one of the earliest tests of a government’s real determination to put the nation first.

Labour promised to “proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean centralising and pooling of building materials and components by the state, together with price control.”

The election campaign reflected the spirit of 1945.

The sheer campaigning dynamic, which I witnessed, was not only decades apart from 2015, but totally different in the anticipation of something magnificent about to happen. Wagons full of people of all ages constantly roamed the streets, loudspeakers blaring with slogans and demands.

The level of mass participation was without parallel. Bessie Braddock, the Labour candidate for the Liverpool constituency of Exchange, was a household name, even among young children who chanted “vote, vote, vote for Bessie Braddock”.

This conscious mass participation in the political process framed the direction of policy inside the Labour Party itself.


Labour’s manifesto of 1945 was given its socialist backbone by a resolution to the 1944 Labour Party conference. It demanded an explicit commitment to extending the publicly owned sector, was supported by 30 constituencies and moved by Ian Mikardo.

He made a compelling speech in which he demanded that the Labour movement restated its fundamental socialist principles, including wide-ranging measures of public ownership. The motion was carried with acclamation.

As Mikardo walked from the hall still reeling at the tumultuous response from the delegates, he met Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) the man who condemned the Poplar Councillors for refusing to cut benefits for the poor. Morrison put a hand on his shoulder and said: ‘That was a good speech you made, but you realise, don’t you, that you’ve lost us the general election?’

Labour’s victory in 1945 and Mikardo’s election as MP for Reading was a total rejection of the right wing’s pessimism and congenital conservatism.

The process of internal Labour Party democracy which facilitated a motion from a constituency becoming part of Labour’s manifesto in 1945 has now, along with the socialist Clause 4, been ripped out of Labour’s constitution.


Kinnock’s treacherous speech attacking the Liverpool Socialist Council in 1985 unleashed the witch-hunt which drove not only Militant supporters (forerunners of the Socialist Party) out of Labour, but also any branch or constituency which challenged the diktats of the Kinnockites was suspended or closed down.

A one-sided civil war was waged against the party rank and file which culminated in the stifling of democratic discussion and the end of rank and file participation in the decision-making process.

In an ironic twist, while Morrison told Mikado in 1945 that his speech had lost Labour the election, Kinnock was told by right winger Denis Healey in 1985 that his attack on Militant had won Labour the next general election. In the event, in contrast to 1945, Kinnock led labour to the second worst defeat since 1931.

The experience of 1945 is completely lost on the current ‘leadership’ who, with the encouragement of a cock-a-hoop media, have drawn the incredible conclusion that Miliband had been too left wing.


This is the whimpering of a hollowed-out shell of a party, colonised at the top by self-seeking career politicians, many of whom like Alan Milburn, found a lucrative position advising private health how to leech on to the NHS, are now anointed by the media as advisors to Labour.

This election has confirmed that TUSC, in the eyes of some of the advanced sections of the working class, is the only serious standard bearer of the spirit of 1945. But a spirit that is not merely a relic of Labour’s past to be referred to in sanctimonious speeches, but one which the building of a new mass party of the working class will make a reality.

Extracts from an article in the Socialist from 2005 by Keith Dickinson

The Labour government had been elected as an expression of the working class’ anger and determination. They had just fought the war on the battlefields and on the home front and were determined that “never again” would they or their children go through that horror.

Neither did they want to return to pre-war poverty and struggle to survive. These had created the conditions for the rise of fascism in Europe, and as they saw it, the consequent world war.

Workers blamed capitalism and its direct representatives, especially Prime Minister Winston Churchill, portrayed in the media as the man who won the war, and our “natural” next prime minister.

Radical programme

Labour won as a result of the Labour Party’s most radical programme ever and despite the weak leadership who were as shocked as anyone at the result.

Victory was due to Labour’s rank and file members, workers and soldiers, who reflected the mood nationally. The war effort greatly increased the workers’ consciousness of their class and their strength in united action.

The government nationalised coal, oil, gas, electricity, transport, the Bank of England and later iron and steel – most of them bankrupt companies, and all of them vital services needed to reconstruct capitalist society.

From the start, these nationalisations deliberately gave workers no say or control. On the contrary, they made representatives of the old private owners into chairmen of the nationalised industries’ boards.

In fact, the 20% of the economy that was nationalised became cheap services and suppliers to the 80% which they left in private hands. Only the NHS has prolonged working class memories of the good things about Labour.

But, in contrast to this record, privatisation of the NHS was accelerated by New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Revolutionary mood

In 1945 there was a revolutionary mood among Britain’s workers and this pressure was even reflected in parliament. On the first day of the new parliament Labour MPs celebrated by singing the socialist anthem, the ‘Red Flag’.

But for all the advances in the welfare state from this government, capitalism still ruled in Britain and most of the reforms won have been snatched back over time by the ruling class.

The workers’ movement needs to be armed with the ideas and the leadership to successfully “seize the time.” The building of a new mass workers’ party with a clear thread of Marxist understanding running throughout the ranks and the leadership will lay the basis for such a movement.