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  • LAURA BEERS (a1)

This article argues for the central role of publicity and propaganda in the Labour party's 1945 landslide election victory. While the ‘swing to the left’ in the first years of the war provided an opportunity for Labour, popular radicalism did not automatically translate into support for the party. The following discussion shows how the national party leadership made use of the BBC, print media, and visual propaganda to associate itself in the popular mind with the successes of the coalition government and the promises of the Beveridge report. While the Conservatives' propaganda machinery fell into abeyance during the war, Labour deftly exploited new means of mass communication which had grown up during the interwar period to build a broad national constituency in favour of its return to power. In order properly to understand the link between ‘high politics’ and popular opinion, political historians need to consider not only the languages through which elite policies were translated and communicated to the public, but also the media of communication. This article argues that, contrary to common perceptions, Labour was successful in 1945 in part because of its ability to embrace and exploit the new mass media to its political advantage.

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American University, Department of History, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC
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Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Contemporary British History seminar at the IHR, the 2008 European Social Science History conference in Lisbon, and the 2008 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies in Pasadena, and I thank those involved, and particularly Pat Thane and Andrew Thorpe, for their feedback. Special thanks are owed to Lawrence Black, Stephen Brooke, Clare Jackson, and the journal's referees for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article. Research funding was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain (PTA-026-27-1586).

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1 Pelling Henry, ‘The 1945 general election reconsidered’, Historical Journal, 23 (1980), pp. 399414, at p. 408.

2 Robert B. McCallum and Alison Readman, The British general election of 1945 (Oxford, 1947), p. 240.

3 Conservative party area agents' election forecasts 1945, Oxford, Conservative Party Archive (CPA), CCO 3/2/61.

4 Pelling, ‘1945 general election’, p. 408.

5 Bernard Donoghue and G. W. Jones, Herbert Morrison: portrait of a politician (London, 1973), p. 338.

6 News Chronicle, 4 July 1945.

7 While the authors of the first Nuffield Study claimed that most people had made up their minds before the campaign began, their analysis focuses primarily on the vicissitudes of the campaign. See McCallum and Readman, General election of 1945.

8 Quoted in Paul Addison, The road to 1945: British politics and the Second World War (London, 1975), p. 163.

9 Fielding Steven, ‘The Second World War and popular radicalism: the significance of the “movement away from party”’, History, 80 (1995), pp. 3858.

10 Fielding Steven, ‘What did “the people” want?: the meaning of the 1945 general election’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), pp. 623–39, at pp. 628, 639.

11 Ibid., p. 629.

12 Angus Calder, The people's war: Britain, 1939–1945 (London, 1969), pp. 533, 574, passim; Addison, Road to 1945, p. 265.

13 Addison, Road to 1945, p. 265.

14 Robert Blake, The Conservative party from Peel to Thatcher (London, 1985), p. 255; Fielding, ‘What did “the people” want?’, p. 629.

15 Pelling, ‘1945 general election’, p. 411.

16 Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in power, 1945–1951 (Oxford, 1984), p. 24.

17 Stephen Brooke, Labour's war: the Labour party during the Second World War (Oxford, 1992); Martin Francis, Ideas and policies under Labour: building a new Britain (Manchester, 1997); Richard Toye, The Labour party and the planned economy, 1931–1951 (Woodbridge, 2003).

18 Both Wise and White were adopted as official Labour candidates in 1945.

19 Brooke to Barnes, 10 Aug. 1943, Caversham Park, Reading, BBC Written Archives Centre (BBC WAC), R34/53/1.

20 R. A. Butler, The art of the possible (London, 1971), p. 129.

21 Alan and Isabella Livingston, ‘Abram Games (1914–1996)’, in H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., The Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004). Online edition.

22 Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, ‘England arise!’: the Labour party and popular politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester, 1995), p. 66; McCallum and Readman, General election of 1945, p. 269; Pelling, ‘1945 general election’, p. 410; Addison, Road to 1945, p. 154. For the view that scholars should not discount the impact of such publicity, see Howard Christopher, ‘Review: “After this, what?”: to 1945 and beyond’, Historical Journal, 28 (1985), pp. 763–70, at p. 764.

23 Thorpe Andrew, ‘Conservative party agents in Second World War Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 18 (2007), pp. 334–64, at p. 334. See also, Addison, Road to 1945, pp. 258–9.

24 Brooke, Labour's war, p. 321.

25 Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘Rethinking Chartism’, in his Languages of class: studies in English working class history, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 90–178. Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor's Party, state and society: electoral behaviour in Britain since 1820 (Aldershot, 1997) brings together the work of several historians expressly concerned with the role of language in politics. Such methodology continues to inform the work of younger scholars. See, e.g., Paul Readman, Land and the nation in England: patriotism, national identity, and the politics of land, 1880–1914 (Woodbridge, 2008).

26 Jon Lawrence addresses this omission in his most recent study, Electing our masters: the hustings in British politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford, 2009).

27 John Ramsden, The age of Balfour and Baldwin (London, 1978); Richard Cockett, ‘The party, publicity and the media’, in Stuart Ball, ed., Conservative century (Oxford, 1994), pp. 547–77; Sian Nicholas, ‘The construction of a national identity: Stanley Baldwin, “Englishness” and the mass media in inter-war Britain’, in Martin Francis and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, eds., The Conservatives and British society, 1880–1990 (Cardiff, 1996), pp. 127–46; Philip Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative leadership and national values (New York, 1999); James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power without responsibility: the press, broadcasting and new media in Britain (London, 2003); Jean Seaton and Ben Pimlott, ‘The struggle for “balance”’, in their The media in British politics (Aldershot, 1987), pp. 133–53.

28 On this theme, see Ross McKibbin, ‘Class and conventional wisdom: the Conservative party and the ‘public’ in interwar Britain’, in his Ideologies of class (Oxford, 1991), pp. 259–93.

29 On Labour's use of the media in the 1930s see Laura Beers, Selling socialism: labour, democracy and the mass media in interwar Britain (Cambridge, MA, forthcoming). On Labour and political education see Dominic Wring, The politics of marketing the Labour party (London, 2005). On Conservative anxieties about Labour superiority in this arena in the interwar period, see Lawrence, Electing our masters, ch. 4.

30 Labour party National Executive Committee (NEC) press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 14 Dec. 1937, Manchester, Labour Party Archive, filed in NEC minutes. Will Henderson was the son of the party leader Arthur Henderson.

31 The term ‘floating voter’ and the importance attached to this elusive figure were evident as early as 28 Oct. 1935, when the Daily Express ran an article titled ‘“Floating vote” will decide’.

32 The unwillingness of many local parties to purchase headquarters publications was frequently discussed at meetings of the NEC press and publicity sub-committee. See, e.g., minutes of meeting held 10 Nov. 1920.

33 Times, 6 Nov. 1937.

34 Beers, Selling socialism, ch. 8.

35 The NEC press and publicity sub-committee began planning for an election campaign in Dec. 1938. See sub-committee minutes from 1 Dec. 1938 onwards.

36 See monthly responses to ‘If an election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?’, in George Gallup, ed., The Gallup international public opinion polls: Great Britain, 1937–1975 (New York, NY, 1976).

37 Morgan, Labour in power, p. 13.

38 Ridley to Shepherd, 10 Mar. 1943, Oxford, Modern Papers, Bodleian library, MS Attlee 7. See also Ridley to Attlee, 18 Mar. 1932, MS Attlee 7. The Workers Film Association was formed in Nov. 1938 by the Labour party and the TUC, with co-operation from the Workers Travel Association and the Co-operative Society. See Stephen Jones, The British labour movement and film, 1918–1939 (London, 1987), pp. 153–7.

39 Cited in Brooke, Labour's war, pp. 69, 79.

40 ‘Political survey conducted in Oct. 1941 in London, Home Counties, East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern, Wessex, Western, North Western, Northern regions, Yorkshire and Wales.’ Sent to R. Topping by J. Stuart, 24 Nov. 1941, CPA, CCO 4/2/162.

41 H. G. Wells, draft article, 5 Feb. 1940, Coventry, Modern Records Centre, Warwick University, TUC MSS 292/790/1.

42 Labour party statement of receipts and payments for years 1939 to 1943, filed in NEC minutes.

43 NEC organization sub-committee minutes, 16 Dec. 1941, filed in NEC minutes.

44 J. Stuart to Col. P. J. Blair, 21 July 1942, CPA, Whip 2/2.

45 Brooke, Labour's war, p. 107.

46 The circulation of the major dailies rose from 17·8 to 28·5 millions between 1937 and 1947. ‘Newspaper circulations, 1800–1954’, A. P. Wandsworth, Report of the Manchester statistical society, Mar. 1955, p. 28.

47 NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 6 Mar. 1942.

48 Harold Croft, The conduct of parliamentary elections (London, 1945), p. 32.

49 Barnes to Maconachie, 7 Apr. 1942; and Barnes to Laski, 10 Apr. 1942, BBC WAC, R51/412.

50 NEC minutes 22 Apr. 1942; NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 16 June 1942.

51 Morgan, Labour in power, p. 25.

52 Fraser's minute of meeting with 1922 committee, 3 June 1942, BBC WAC, R34/531/1.

53 R. Topping to D. Hacking, 7 Oct. 1941, CPA, CRD 2/28/2.

54 Cuthbert Headlam, The Headlam diaries, 1923–1935, ed. Stuart Ball (London, 1992), 3 Oct. 1942 entry.

55 On the constitutional relationship between the BBC and the government during the war, and the government's influence over BBC coverage of industrial relations and other sensitive subjects, see Asa Briggs, The history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom, iii: The war of words (Oxford, 1970).

56 Seaton and Pimlott, ‘The struggle for “balance”’.

57 Andrew Stewart to Melville Dinwiddle, 13 Dec. 1943, BBC WAC, R51/600/2.

58 Memorandum by Margery Wace, Talks Dept, on her meeting with Walter Citrine, 16 Aug. 1940, BBC WAC, R51/600/2.

59 Maconachie to N. Luker, 19 Aug. 1940, BBC WAC, R51/600/2.

60 Minutes of meeting, 14 July 1942, BBC WAC R51/412.

61 Sian Nicholas, ‘Politics and the audience: political broadcasting and BBC listener research c. 1936–1950’, paper presented at the North American Conference on British Studies, Boston, MA, Nov. 2006.

62 Addison, Road to 1945, p. 169.

63 Daily Herald, 2 Dec. 1942.

64 Addison, Road to 1945, p. 222.

65 Quoted in Daily Herald, 23 Dec. 1942.

67 NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 19 Jan. 1943.

68 Minutes of WFA meeting, 8 Feb. 1943, filed in NEC minutes.

69 John Bonham, The middle-class vote (London, 1954), pp. 154, 164.

70 One historian who appreciated (or more appropriately deplored) this was Ralph Miliband (Parliamentary socialism: a study in the politics of Labour (London, 1961)).

71 Pelling, ‘1945 general election’, p. 407.

72 Herbert Morrison, ‘Labour must capture the East Lewishams’, Labour Organiser, Mar. 1945, pp. 8–9. Quoted in Brooke, Labour's war, p. 309.

73 NEC memorandum, 28 July 1943, filed in NEC minutes.

74 Butler, Art of the possible, p. 298.

75 Erskine-Hill memorandum on proposed sub-committees, included in R. Topping to J. Stuart, 5 June 1941, CPA, Whip 1/4.

76 R. A. Butler to D. Hacking, 20 Aug. 1940; Lady H. Bourne to R. Topping, 30 Aug. 1940, CPA, CCO 20/1/1.

77 R. Topping to T. Dugdale, n.d. [after Skipton by-election, 7 Jan. 1944], CPA, Whip 2/2.

78 Brooke Stephen, ‘The Labour party and the 1945 general election’, Contemporary Record, 9 (1995), pp. 121.

79 Andrew Thorpe, Parties at war: political organization in Second World War Britain (Oxford, 2009), pp. 38, 200, 217.

80 The Labour party used the term ‘propaganda’ to refer to platform speaking, and Webb's remit was to co-ordinate the dispatch of speakers from headquarters to constituencies around the country.

81 Pelling, ‘1945 general election’, p. 411.

82 Conservative housing policy, however, prioritized homes built for sale, whereas the Labour governments had focused on building rental housing.

83 Franklin Mark and Lander Matthew, ‘The undoing of Winston Churchill: mobilization and conversion in the 1945 realignment of British voters’, British Journal of Political Science, 25 (1995), pp. 429–52.

84 NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 15 Feb. 1944.

85 Ross McKibbin, Classes and cultures: England, 1918–1951 (Oxford, 1998), pp. 96–8, 202–5. This apoliticism arguably characterized 1950s political culture as well. See Black Lawrence, ‘The lost world of young conservatism’, Historical Journal, 51 (2008), pp. 9911024.

86 Addison, Road to 1945, p. 217.

87 ‘The Labour party policy campaign’, NEC memorandum, 28 July 1943, filed in NEC minutes.

88 Henderson to Durbin, 8 Mar. 1944, MS Attlee 13.

89 Philip Noel-Baker's papers contain an annotated and heavily scored copy of ‘Labour and the war government’, Cambridge, Churchill College Archives, NBKR 2/47.

90 NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 15 Feb. 1944.

91 From 2,673,000 to 3,039,000. Figures from Labour's first century, ed. Duncan Tanner, Pat Thane and Nick Tiratsoo (Cambridge, 2000), p. 395.

92 NEC press and publicity sub-committee minutes, 15 Feb. 1944.

93 NEC minutes, 29 Nov. 1935.

94 £13,641 9s 8d in 1935 equated to £21,506 15s 2d in 1944. Conversion from: Lawrence H. Officer, ‘Purchasing power of British pounds from 1264 to 2006’,, 2007.

95 ‘Memorandum on election services.’ Approved by the full NEC press and publicity sub-committee, 2 May 1944, filed in NEC minutes.

96 Andrew Thorpe, ‘Politics or organization? Labour party membership in the Second World War’, paper presented at the European social science history conference, Lisbon, Portugal, Mar. 2008.

97 Neame to Lloyd, 14 Mar. 1945, CPA, CCO 4/2/14.

98 Labour's plans were not limited by financial constraints. While total campaign expenditure was only £40,515 10s, this left an unspent balance in the General Election Fund of £84,953 11s 7d. See ‘Statement of receipts and payments for the year ended Dec. 31st, 1945’, in Report of the 45th annual Labour party conference (London, 1946), pp. 40–3. On the practical difficulties encountered by Labour publicists as a consequence of the wartime election see Labour party press and publicity department, ‘General election, July 1945, report on campaign publicity services’, n.d. [July 1945], filed in NEC minutes.

99 NEC campaign sub-committee minutes, 11 Apr. 1945, filed in NEC minutes.

100 ‘Report on campaign publicity services’.

101 See general election poster no. 11 ‘Put Britain's industry at Britain's service – vote Labour’, no. 12 ‘British food for British homes and prosperity for agriculture – vote Labour’, and 14 ‘A non-stop drive to provide a good home for every family – vote Labour’. Held in Cambridge University Library, political poster collection.

102 While this was partly the result of the ‘swing to the left’, it also reflected the softening of attitudes towards Bolshevism during the war. See Philip Bell, John Bull and the bear: British public opinion, foreign policy and the Soviet Union, 1941–1945 (London, 1990).

103 On the persistence of local variation in party colours through the 1950s, see Martin Rosenbaum, From soapbox to soundbyte: party political campaigning in Britain since 1945 (London, 1997), pp. 201–2.

104 Zec produced the entire series in a week ‘working night and day’. See ‘Report on campaign publicity services’.

105 Herbert Morrison, Herbert Morrison: an autobiography (London, 1960), p. 237.

106 John Callaghan, Steven Fielding, and Steve Ludlam, eds., Interpreting the Labour party: approaches to Labour politics and history (Manchester, 2003).

107 Morrison, Morrison, p. 237.

108 James Thomas, Popular newspapers, the Labour party and British politics (London, 2005), p. 23.

109 Pugh Martin, ‘The Daily Mirror and the revival of Labour, 1935–1945’, Twentieth Century British History, 9 (1999), p. 425.

110 Donoghue and Jones, Morrison, p. 335.

111 Ibid.; based on interview with S. Elliott.

112 The total circulation of the three papers in 1945 was 5·8 million. The circulations of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the tabloid Daily Sketch and Daily Graphic totalled 5·9 million. Figures quoted in Thomas, Popular newspapers, p. 15.

113 See especially McCallum and Readman, General election of 1945, pp. 140ff.

114 For Aneurin Bevan's view that the Churchill cult of personality represented a ‘degradation to democracy’ see Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan (London, 1962), p. 507.

115 McCallum and Readman, General election of 1945, p. 149.

116 ‘Report on campaign publicity services’. In contrast, the party disposed of 1,170,000 of 1,176,000 housing leaflets produced, and 2,050,000 of 2,127,000 leaflets on control of industry.

117 M-O File report 2270a: ‘A report on the general election, June–July 1945’ (Oct. 1945), p. 114.

118 Calder, People's war, p. 583.

119 Daily Express, 11 Nov. 1935; Nicholas, ‘Politics and the audience’.

120 Weekly film attendance rose from just under 20 million in the 1930s to 30 million in 1945. McKibbin, Classes and cultures, p. 419. On the value that the party accorded Attlee's newsreel film, see ‘Report on campaign publicity services’.

121 On the impact of political posters, see Thompson James, ‘Pictorial lies?: posters and politics in Britain, 1880–1914’, Past and Present, 197 (Nov. 2007), pp. 177210.

122 Report of the 45th annual Labour party conference, p. 109.

123 The debate over media effects centres around the issue of ‘producer’ versus ‘consumer sovereignty’, with advocates for the former thesis arguing that media proprietors exercise influence through their control over journalistic content, and advocates for the latter arguing that consumers, through their market power, drive the industry to produce the kind of media the public wants. For a summary of this literature, see, e.g., D. L. LeMahieu, A culture for democracy: mass communication and the cultivated mind in Britain between the wars (Oxford, 1988), pp. 15ff. The standard British text on politics and the media, Curran and Seaton, Power without responsibility, takes a broadly producerist view of media coverage of politics. Margaret Scammell, ‘The media and media management’, in Anthony Seldon, ed., The Blair effect: the Blair government, 1997–2001 (London, 2001), pp. 509–33, at p. 532), has noted that, in the realm of political communication, media effects are still most frequently assessed in terms of electoral success or lack thereof.

124 M-O file report 1: ‘Channels of publicity: press, radio, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, films’, Oct. 1939; and file report 126: ‘Report of the press’, May 1940.

125 M-O file report 2270c: newspaper reading and voting in the general election, Jan. 1946.

126 For the argument that New Labour's self-professed ‘newness’ has obscured important continuities with the past, see Steven Fielding, The Labour party: continuity and change in the making of ‘New’ Labour (Basingstoke, 2003). For an analysis that emphasizes the fundamental breaks between ‘old’ and ‘new’, see James Cronin, New Labour's pasts: the Labour party and its discontents (Harlow, 2004).

127 Fielding Steven, ‘Activists against “affluence”: Labour party culture during the “golden age”, circa 1950–1970’, Journal of British Studies, 40 (2001), pp. 241–67; Lawrence Black, The political culture of the left in affluent Britain: old Labour, new Britain? (Basingstoke, 2003).

128 Martin Moore, The origins of modern spin: democratic government and the media in Britain, 1945–51 (Basingstoke, 2007); Wring, Marketing the Labour party.

* Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Contemporary British History seminar at the IHR, the 2008 European Social Science History conference in Lisbon, and the 2008 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies in Pasadena, and I thank those involved, and particularly Pat Thane and Andrew Thorpe, for their feedback. Special thanks are owed to Lawrence Black, Stephen Brooke, Clare Jackson, and the journal's referees for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article. Research funding was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain (PTA-026-27-1586).

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