Leeds Nostalgia: The shocking Labour election victory of 1945

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Seventy years ago today Labour stood on the verge of making history by winning the General Election, ushering in one of the most radical periods in British politics.

The 1945 Labour Government was responsible for creating the National Health Service, an institution which has become synonymous with Great Britain and which has barely been out of the headlines since.



The result of the election became known at 2.15pm on Thursday July 26. It represented a radical shift in political direction for Britain and also brought to an end the reign of war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Less than 12 weeks earlier, Churchill had announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Despite his popularity during the war, the country as a whole had decided it wanted a clean break from the past.

In Leeds, five of the six constituencies returned Labour candidates and in the sixth, Osbert Peake only clung onto his seat by a meagre 128 votes.

The first majority recoded on the night was Salford South with a majority of 4,791. The first big surprise of the night was Harold MacMillan, Air Minister, who lose his Stockton-on-Tees seat to Labour’s Captain Chetwynd, with a majority of 8,664. That was a bitter blow both for the Tories and Mr MacMillan himself, as he had previously enjoyed a majority of over 4,000.

But even than wasn’t the biggest swing - Branden Bracken, First Lord of the Admiralty, had a majority of 7,228 at the previous election in North Paddington but he lost out to Labour, who gained a majority of 6,545.

One figure to emerge in 1945 was Michael Foot, future leader of the Labour Party, who had three other family members standing in the same election, albeit as Liberals (his father, Isaac and brothers, Dingle and John). Other noteworthy names included Denis Healey, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

Clement Atlee was at the head of the first Labour government to have a clear majority in the House of Commons. With 47.7 per cent of the vote, Labour secured a staggering 393 seats in the House of Commons. The Tories, with 39.7 per cent, won just 210 seats. The Liberals were reduced to nine per cent of the vote, and just 12 seats. Labour party had held office only twice before, in 1924 and in 1929-31, but during the war years its leadership had acquired both experience and trust.

Despite the changes taking place in Britain, the Second World War was still not over, with Japan remaining defiant and fighting on.

Atlee, however, who had been Churchill’s wartime deputy, was not cut out for the job, being too shy and clinical in his approach. Churchill once scathingly described him as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’.

Perhaps the Labour Party of today would look back wistfully, if not enviously, at the 1945 administration. It changed so much about Britain and the way we live, or came to live - it nationalised the major industries, not least of which was the coal mines, at that time run privately and leaving many miners in dangerous conditions. But not everything was welcomed - British Rail always seemed on the back foot and, in the end, state control proved too cumbersome for the modern era.