1945unofficial labour party history
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July 1945This election is to prove the most dramatic in British political history. Whilst in 1935 Labour only won 154 seats, now Labour's vote rockets to nearly 12 million and 393 Labour MPs are elected. This is the first clear majority the Labour Party has ever enjoyed, and two-thirds of the Party's MPs have never been in Parliament before. Many are young, middle-class professionals, yet this is a PLP more representative of all British citizens than ever before. The phrase "we are the masters now" is illustrated when Labour MPs begin singing "The Red Flag" on the floor of the Commons. The 1945 Cabinet contains ample talent, dominated by the heavyweight team of Attlee, Bevin and Morrison.
With a drained economy, massive foreign debt, decimated industries and ruined cities, Britain is in a state of chaos. Thousands of demobbed servicemen flock back from war to find one-third of all housing has been destroyed. A massive programme of social reform is set into place.
January 1946As Minister of Health and Housing, Bevan's first step is to bypass private construction deals. A single national housebuilding programme would be tricky to implement, so he first tackles the confusion of the various local authorities and various government departments.
February 1946 The Bank of England is nationalised.
April 1946Nye Bevan releases his scheme for the creation of a National Health Service. This is a far more radical than the plan advocated by Willink during the war. Bevan demands the full nationalisation of all hospitals in order to level standards - overcoming resistance from Morrison and Ede. The plan prompts a two-year battle with the British Medical Association, during which time Attlee supports his minister through a number of bad-tempered episodes.
July 1946The Beveridge Scheme for social insurance is implemented in the National Insurance Act, along with family allowances and workers' injury compensation.
September 1946The School Milk Act gives free milk to all British schoolchildren, thanks to the energies of Ellen Wilkinson.
January 1947Coal mines are nationalised - creating the National Coal Board - and fulfilling an old pledge to the miners. Coming soon after coal nationalisation, the harsh winter of 1947 exacerbates food and fuel shortages, leading to high emigration and 'brain drain' to the USA and Australasia. The wartime controls over industry remain in place, with rationing even extended to include bread. Hugh Dalton exhorts people to direct their efforts into exporting as many goods as possible.
The 1947 crisis diminishes the government, as previous planning arrangements, which had been thought to be foolproof, show deficiencies and miscalculations. Now the USA is explicitly asked to help Britain with aid - with Clement Attlee, Hugh Dalton and John Maynard Keynes forced to press the US for assistance. Possibly, after this point, there is, by necessity, an increasingly Atlanticist approach.
February 1947The Minister for Education, Ellen Wilkinson, tragically dies after a drug overdose. She had become depressed at the slow pace of educational reform. However, in the next few years, the 1944 Butler Act is enacted - providing secondary schools across the UK. The school-leaving age is raised to 15, fees are abolished in state schools and universities are expanded.
August 1947Labour sets about dismantling the Empire with some relish, replacing it with a Commonwealth of free and independent states. India, secured by Nehru and Gandhi, is obviously the major convert to democracy, but Burma and Ceylon are also historically and geographically important. Tragically, the secession of Pakistan from India results in huge waves of violence.
January 1948The British railway network is nationalised, creating British Rail. Canals, road haulage, airlines, cable firms, wireless companies and power suppliers are to follow. Mainly, these nationalisations owe quite a lot to Herbert Morrison's brand of top-down organisation, and will store potential problems for the future. More than ever, though, this is a time when politics is felt to be vitally important for everyone, as people are shown for the first time what practical benefits socialism could bring. This is only with the benefit of American financial assistance, which seems contradictory at first; yet at this time the attraction of Soviet communism is still far from dead. With a Cold War freezing up Europe, a simplistic problem for Labour is how to pick its way between the two - what Nye Bevan called the "Third Way."
June 1948A wildcat dock strike erupts in a number of ports. The Government declares a state of emergency. Troops are used to keep ports running. Thanks in part to a direct radio appeal from Attlee, the strike is soon resolved.
July 1948The birth of the National Health Service requires the skill of Health Minister Nye Bevan and the determination of the Party to overcome the British Medical Association's fears of professional downgrading. The NHS is seen as the cornerstone of the new Socialist society. Equality of medical care had never been tried in Britain before; although a good example existed in New Zealand from the early years of the century.After a compromise allowing doctors to take private patients as well as NHS patients, the NHS begins to treat patients. It is immediately confronted by massive demand and spiralling costs - but is nevertheless judged a massive success in providing healthcare "available to rich and poor alike in accordance with medical need and by no other criteria."(from In Place of Fear, 1952)
February 1950It is acknowledged that the Labour Government has been a huge success. In extremely difficult conditions, full employment has been maintained throughout, with the result of a million new well-constructed homes being built. However, despite good success in the export drive and a government with a generally exemplary record, Britain in 1950 is still an austere, drab and grey place. The Conservatives acknowledge the success of many of the social and economic reforms but promise to end rationing quicker than Labour. Despite winning more than 13 million votes, Attlee gains only a six-seat majority after an election in the winter of 1950. The new parliament sees Labour's problems mounting as some of the contradictions of Labour's post-war position become clearer.
June 1950The onset of the Korean War precipitates the crisis that brings a premature end to this great reforming government. Already weakened by the death of Ernest Bevin and Chancellor Stafford Cripps' illness, the Party descends into quarrelling. Hugh Gaitskell, Cripps' right-wing replacement as Chancellor, feels obliged by the Americans to embark upon a re-armament programme. Cuts have to be made elsewhere.His decision to cut health spending and introduce charges for spectacles and dentures is derided by the Left, led by Bevan. The Cabinet sees two of its brightest stars, Bevan and Harold Wilson, resign as Attlee struggles to retain control of a situation that seems to overcome his aloof, consensual leadership style.
October 1951Having won an unusable majority in 1950, Attlee tries to resolve the situation by going back to the country. This election sees a divided Labour Party attain nearly 14 million votes - a new record for any party. However, in an electoral anomaly, the Tories win 321 seats to Labour's 295. A new and talented left has emerged, centred around Bevan, including Crossman, Wilson and Castle. This poses a threat to the right wing union hierarchy which wields the block votes at conference.
August 1954Nye Bevan resigns again - this time over the rearmament of Germany. Harold Wilson takes his place in the Shadow Cabinet.

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