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What was the impact of the Second World War on the UK Labour Party?

The majority of the Labour leadership, like the rank and file, were united behind Britain’s decision to go to war. They refused to join a coalition under Neville Chamberlain, but did agree to enter government under Winston Churchill in May 1940.

Labour leaders such as Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin received prominent positions in the Coalition. Labour ministers gained valuable experience and proved themselves capable of government.

But Labour also retained its own identity. They remained the main Opposition Party in the Commons and they stood out on issues of welfare and social reform.

From the beginning of the war Labour focused on developing policies for post-war reconstruction. They stressed the need for planning and war time controls to continue, to avoid the economic ‘chaos’ and mass unemployment which followed the First World War.

Labour also saw the end of the war as an opportunity to establish a fairer society. Their manifesto Let Us Face The Future promised far-reaching welfare reforms and nationalisation of failing industries to ensure ‘a prosperous peace’ for all.

The positive public response to the 1942 Beveridge Report demonstrated the huge support that existed for social reform. By 1945 Labour was seen as the Party most likely to bring this about.

In 1939 Labour had had little chance of winning a General Election. In 1945 they won their greatest ever electoral victory.

On the 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. The Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the Commons the following day but, against expectations, did not announce that Britain had declared war.

Arthur Greenwood, acting as Labour Leader due to Clement Attlee’s ill health, did much for Labour’s reputation when he spoke in favour of ‘unity’ and an early declaration of war.

On the 3 September, with war declared, Greenwood pledged Labour’s ‘wholehearted support’ and ‘full contribution to the national cause’.

The majority of Labour MPs, like the rank and file, supported Britain’s entry into the war.

They were less divided than they had been at the outbreak of World War I. The traditionally pacifist Independent Labour Party had disaffiliated in 1932. This time the reason for declaring war was less contentious.

A small group of around twenty MPs, known as the Peace Aims Group, did voice their dissent and press for a negotiated peace.

Although Labour supported the war effort, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) initially refused to enter into a coalition. They did agree to an electoral truce.

During the ‘Phoney War’ Chamberlain became increasingly unpopular. Many felt he was not up to the task in hand.

In May 1940 the PLP called for a vote of confidence in the Government during a debate on the disastrous Norwegian Campaign. Chamberlain’s win by 81 votes did not secure his position.

Attlee and Greenwood once again refused his request to join the Government. Labour’s National Executive Council voted to join a coalition, but not one led by Chamberlain.

Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill. The delegates at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth endorsed the decision to join Churchill’s Coalition 2.4 million to 170,000 votes.

Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood both joined Churchill’s five-man War Cabinet, Attlee as Lord Privy Seal and Greenwood as Minister without Portfolio.

Attlee proved a very capable minister and in September 1943 he became Lord President of the Council and Churchill’s Deputy Prime Minister. Greenwood left the Cabinet in February 1942.

Herbert Morrison was initially Minister of Supply before becoming Home Secretary, a post he held until the war’s end. The trade unionist Ernest Bevin was appointed Minister of Labour and National Service. He served in the War Cabinet and held the post for the duration.

Outside the Cabinet, A V Alexander was made First Lord of the Admiralty.

As Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He later served as President of the Board of Trade.

Hugh Gaitskell worked with Dalton as his private secretary, having been recruited to Whitehall as a temporary civil servant.

Junior post holders included Ellen Wilkinson and James Chuter Ede, who both went on to serve in Attlee’s Cabinet.

Participation in the Coalition greatly enhanced Labour’s credibility. The Party’s reputation had suffered since Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-1931 administration. Labour leaders, such as Attlee, Bevin and Morrison, were able to demonstrate their competence and ability to govern.

By the time of the 1945 election, Labour had raised its public profile as part of a successful wartime government.

Although Labour ministers joined Churchill’s Coalition, the Labour Party was still officially the main Opposition in the House of Commons. H B Lees-Smith, F W Pethick-Lawrence and from March 1942 Arthur Greenwood, led the Party in the House.

Generally the PLP supported the Coalition. The most outspoken of the Labour backbenchers were Aneurin Bevan and Emmanuel Shinwell. Although supporting the war effort, Bevan criticised Churchill and the Government over welfare issues and military strategy. This helped Labour keep its own identity.

It was the Cabinet’s response to the Beveridge Report which provoked the biggest revolt by the Labour backbench.

Published in December 1942, it had received wide public support. Over 100,000 copies were sold in the first month.

On the 16 February 1943 the Commons began a three day debate on Beveridge’s proposals. Labour pushed for a pledge from the Government that it would accept the principles of the Report and implement them as soon as possible. But the Government would offer no firm commitment.

The motion that had been tabled merely considered the Report to be a ‘valuable aid’ to future legislation.

The Commons passed the motion with 335 MPs voting with the Government. However, 119 voted for James Griffiths’ amendment for early implementation of the Report.

97 Labour MPs, almost the entire Labour backbench, had defied the Labour whip and voted against the Government.

This would benefit Labour at the 1945 General Election. In the minds of the electorate Labour stood out as the Party who supported the Report and welfare reform.

‘Victory in War must be followed by a Prosperous Peace’ Let Us Face The Future, Labour Party, 1945

Welfare reform was just one aspect of Labour’s plans for post war reconstruction. From the beginning Labour had focused on developing policies for after the war’s end.

In 1941 it set up the Central Committee on Problems of Post War Reconstruction. Policy documents such as The Old World and the New Society, published in February 1942, stressed the need for economic planning and war time controls to be retained in peacetime.

Labour saw the end of the war as an opportunity to build a fairer society. It also wanted to avoid the serious economic problems and mass unemployment which had followed the end of the last war.

Labour ministers pushed the Coalition to plan for post-war reconstruction.

The war economy increased demand for labour and by 1942 Britain had full employment. TUC membership rose from 4.7 million in 1938 to 7.5 million in 1946. Union recognition also spread.

The Government imposed war time controls on labour. The 1941 Essential Work (General Provisions) Order gave the Government the right to direct skilled labour. Traditional trade practices were suspended allowing for the dilution of labour. Order 1305 banned lockouts and strikes. In 1944 Defence Regulation 1AA made incitement to strike illegal.

The Minister for Labour Ernest Bevin was leader of the Transport and General Workers Union. Recognising the need to maintain a good relationship with the unions, Churchill had given him a place in the Cabinet in October 1940.

Bevin preferred conciliation to conflict. He also wanted greater union participation in the war effort. He established a joint Consultative Committee of seven trade unionists and seven employers’ representatives which met twice a month.

Unions were also represented on regional production boards.

By working closely with the Government and contributing to the war effort the public perception of trade unions greatly improved. This benefited Labour due to the unions close association with the Party.

Affiliated membership of the Labour Party also rose from 2.2 million in 1938 to just over 2.5 million in 1945.

The General Election on the 5 July 1945 was the first held in Britain for ten years. Labour fought the election as an independent party. When the result was announced three weeks later on the 26 July (to allow forces overseas to vote) Labour had won by a landslide.

Labour won 393 seats with 48% of the vote, almost 12 million votes. The Conservatives won 210 seats the Liberals 12. There was a 12% swing to Labour which was now a truly national party, having won seats across the country.

The Conservatives were associated with the National Governments of the 1930s, a time of mass unemployment. They were also linked to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Churchill had been a good wartime leader, but many felt he was not suited to lead the country in peacetime.

The Conservatives were out of step with the mood in the country. Churchill attempted to discredit the Labour Party by alleging it ‘would have to fall back on some kind of Gestapo’ to implement its policies.

Attlee responded by thanking him for pointing out the difference between ‘Churchill the great war leader…and Mr Churchill the Party Leader of the Conservatives’.

Public perception of socialism had changed. Labour intended to continue with the same planning and controls which had helped the country to victory.

In their manifesto Let Us Face the Future, Labour offered the ‘nation a plan which will win the peace for the people’. It promised far-reaching social and welfare reforms, better housing and ‘jobs for all’.

As part of the Coalition, Labour ministers had proved their ability to govern. At the same time, the Party had stood out on social and welfare issues. Large sections of the population supported social reform and they saw Labour as the Party most likely to bring this about.