1951 United Kingdom general election

The 1951 United Kingdom general election was held twenty months after the 1950 general election, which the Labour Party had won with a slim majority of just five seats. The Labour government called a snap election for Thursday 25 October 1951 in the hope of increasing its parliamentary majority. However, despite winning the popular vote and achieving both the highest-ever total vote at the time and the highest percentage vote share, Labour won fewer seats than the Conservative Party. That was caused mainly by the collapse of the Liberal vote, which enabled the Conservatives to win seats by default. The record high vote total remained until it was surpassed by the Conservative Party in 1992 and again in 2019.

1951 United Kingdom general election

← 1950 25 October 1951 1955 →

All 625 seats in the House of Commons
313 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout82.6%, Decrease1.3%
  First party Second party Third party
 
Leader Winston Churchill Clement Attlee Clement Davies
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since 9 October 1940 25 October 1935 2 August 1945
Leader's seat Woodford Walthamstow West Montgomeryshire
Last election 298 seats, 43.4% 315 seats, 46.1% 9 seats, 9.1%
Seats won 321 295 6
Seat change Increase23 Decrease20 Decrease3
Popular vote 13,717,851 13,948,385 730,546
Percentage 48.0% 48.8% 2.5%
Swing Increase4.6% Increase2.7% Decrease6.6%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Clement Attlee
Labour

Prime Minister after election

Winston Churchill
Conservative

The election marked the return of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister and the beginning of Labour's 13-year spell in opposition. It was the third and final general election to be held during the reign of King George VI, as he died the following year on 6 February and was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II. It was the last election in which the Conservatives did better in Scotland than in England.

The 1951 election was the second one to be covered on BBC Television. On election night, the results were televised from the BBC Alexandra Palace studio in London. Graham Hutton, David Butler and H. G. Nicholas headed the election night coverage from 10.15pm to 4.00am on the television service. On the following day, television coverage started at 10.00am and continued throughout the day until 5.00pm.[1]

Background edit

King George VI feared since that the government had such a slim majority, and he was to leave the country to go on his planned Commonwealth tour in early 1952, there was a possibility of a change of government in his absence. Clement Attlee decided to call the election to assuage that concern.[2] (In the event, the King became too ill to travel and delegated the tour to his daughter Princess Elizabeth shortly before his death in February 1952). Parliament was dissolved on 5 October 1951.[3]

The Labour government, which had implemented most of its manifesto from the 1945 election, was beginning to lose cabinet ministers, such as Ernest Bevin (death) and Stafford Cripps (health issues). The Conservative Party, however, had more MPs since the 1950 general election.

Campaign edit

The Labour Party entered the election by being weakened by the emerging schism between Gaitskellites, on the right of the party, and the Bevanites, on its left.[4] The party's manifesto stated that the party "proud of its record, sure in its policies—confidently asks the electors to renew its mandate". It identified four key tasks facing the United Kingdom that it would tackle: the need to work for peace, the need to work to "maintain full employment and to increase production", the need to reduce cost of living and the need to "build a just society". The manifesto argued that only a Labour government could achieve those tasks.[5] It also contrasted the Britain of 1951 with that of the interwar years in which there had been largely Conservative-led governments by noting that the interwar period had seen "mass-unemployment; mass fear; mass misery".[6] It did not promise more nationalisations, unlike in the previous year's election, and instead focused on offering more council housing and a pledge to "associate the workers more closely with the administration of public industries and services". However, it remained opposed to full workers' control of industries.[4]

While Labour began to have some policy divisions during the election campaign, the Conservatives ran an efficient campaign, which was well-funded and orchestrated. Their manifesto l, Britain Strong and Free, stressed that safeguarding "our traditional way of life" was integral to the Conservative purpose. Significantly, they did not propose to dismantle the British welfare state or the National Health Service which the Labour government had established.[7] The manifesto, however, promised to "stop all further nationalisation" and to repeal the Steel Act, which had been introduced by the Labour government and was being implemented during the election season. The Conservatives also attacked Labour for ending wartime rationing and price controls too slowly and for the rise of industrial conflicts after the end of the wartime wage freeze and the Defence Regulations bans on strike actions.[4][8]

As for the Liberal Party, its poor election result in 1950 only worsened this time. Unable to get the same insurance against losses of deposits of the previous year, it fielded only 109 candidates, as opposed to 478 in 1950, and thus posted the worst general election result in the party's history by getting just 2.5% of the vote and winning only six seats. The popular vote of the Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats has not fallen so low since, but their lowest number of six seats would be matched in several future elections.[9] The Liberal Party's growing irrelevance weakened the Labour Party since two thirds of potential Liberal voters supported the Conservatives.[4]

Four candidates were returned unopposed, all of them Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland. It is the most recent general election in which any candidates have been returned unopposed although there have been later unopposed by-elections.[10]

The subsequent Labour defeat was significant for several reasons. The party polled almost a quarter-million votes more than the Conservative Party and its National Liberal Party ally combined; won the most votes that Labour has ever won (as of 2019); and won the most votes of any political party in any election in British political history, a number that would not be surpassed until the Conservative Party's victory in 1992.

However, the Conservative Party formed the next government with a majority of 17 seats. It performed much better with male working-class voters than in the elections of 1945 or 1950 and tipped the vote away from Labour in Lancashire, the Home Counties and East Anglia.[4] Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, many Labour votes were "wasted" because they were included in large majorities for MPs in safe seats.

Results edit

 
1951 United Kingdom general election
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood Elected Gained Unseated Net % of total % No. Net %
  Labour Clement Attlee 617 295 2 22 −20 47.2 48.8 13,948,883 +2.7
  Conservative Winston Churchill 617 321 23 1 +22 51.4 48.0 13,717,850 +4.6
  Liberal Clement Davies 109 6 1 4 −3 1.0 2.6 730,546 −6.5
  Independent Nationalist N/A 3 2 0 0 0 0.3 0.3 92,787 N/A
  Irish Labour William Norton 1 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.1 33,174 −0.1
  Communist Harry Pollitt 10 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.1 21,640 −0.2
  Independent N/A 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.1 19,791 N/A
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 10,920 −0.1
  Scottish National Robert McIntyre 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 7,299 0.0
  Ind. Conservative N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 5,904 N/A
  Ind. Labour Party Fred Barton 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 4,057 0.0
  British Empire P. J. Ridout 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 1,643 N/A
  Anti-Partition James McSparran 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 1,340 0.0
  United Socialist Guy Aldred 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 411 0.0

Total votes cast: 28,596,594.[a]

Government's new majority 17
Total votes cast 28,596,594
Turnout 82.6%

Votes summary edit

Popular vote
Labour
48.78%
Conservative
47.97%
Liberal
2.55%
Others
0.70%

Headline swing: 1.13% to Conservative.

Seats summary edit

Parliamentary seats
Conservative
51.36%
Labour
47.20%
Liberal
0.96%
Others
0.48%

Transfers of seats edit

All comparisons are with the 1950 election.[b]

From To No. Seats
Labour Labour (HOLD) 273
Liberal 1 Bolton West
Conservative 21 Barry, Battersea South, Bedfordshire South, Berwick and East Lothian, Bolton East, Buckingham, Conway, Darlington, Doncaster, Dulwich, King's Lynn, Manchester Blackley, Middlesbrough West, Norfolk South West, Oldham East, Plymouth Sutton, Reading North, Rochdale, Rutherglen, Wycombe, Yarmouth
Nationalist Nationalist (HOLD) 1 Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Independent Nationalist 1 Mid Ulster
Liberal Labour 2 Anglesey, Meirioneth
Liberal (HOLD) 5 Cardiganshire, Carmarthen, Huddersfield West, Montgomery, Orkney and Shetland
Conservative 2 Eye, Roxburgh and Selkirk
National Liberal National Liberal (HOLD) 16 Angus North and Mearns, Angus South, Bedfordshire South, Bradford North, Denbigh, Dumfriesshire, Fife East, Harwich, Holland with Boston, Huntingdonshire, Luton, Norfolk Central, Renfrewshire West, Ross and Cromarty, St Ives, Torrington
Conservative National Liberal 1 Newcastle upon Tyne North
Conservative (HOLD) many
Speaker 1 Hexham
Ulster Unionist Irish Labour 1 Belfast West
Ulster Unionist 9 North Antrim, South Antrim, Armagh, Belfast East, Belfast North, Belfast South, Down North, Down South, Londonderry

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ All parties shown. Conservative result includes the Ulster Unionists.
  2. ^ No seats changed hands during the 1950–51 Parliament.

References edit

  1. ^ "The General Election". Radio Times (1458): 50. 19 October 1951.
  2. ^ Judd 2012, p. 238: Judd writes that Attlee confirmed in his own autobiography the King's anxiety.
  3. ^ "Parliamentary Election Timetables" (PDF) (3rd ed.). House of Commons Library. 25 March 1997. Retrieved 3 July 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. p. 133. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.
  5. ^ The Times House of Commons 1951, London: The Times Office, 1951, p. 228
  6. ^ The Times House of Commons 1951, London: The Times Office, 1951, p. 229
  7. ^ Kynaston 2009, p. 32.
  8. ^ The Times House of Commons 1951, London: The Times Office, 1951, p. 234
  9. ^ 1951: Churchill back in power at last, BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 5 October 2013
  10. ^ "General Election Results 1885–1979". election.demon.co.uk. Archived from the original on 23 February 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2020 – via Wayback Machine.

Sources edit

External links edit

Manifestos edit