Political parties and government 1931–92
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After studying this section you should be able to:

  • outline the changing fortunes of the three main political parties between1931 and 1992

The Great Depression cut across the development of the party system. In 1931 the second Labour ministry, faced by a financial crisis, collapsed. MacDonald then accepted office as Prime Minister of a National Government, with Baldwin as his deputy. The idea was that a coalition was necessary to deal with the crisis but the great majority of Labour MPs strongly disapproved. Thus the National Government, though technically a coalition, was Conservative-dominated. The electorate, however, approved: the 1931 election gave the National Government an overwhelming victory and Labour was reduced to 52 MPs. It still had one-third of the votes, however, and gradually rebuilt its strength. The Second World War brought a suspension of normal politics with the formation of the wartime coalition. The inclusion of a number of Labour ministers in this was important in preparing Labour for office. Most Labour MPs regarded MacDonald as a traitor, especially after this catastrophic election result.

Attlee and Gaitskell
The 1945 election not only marked a reversion to normal party politics but produced a sweeping victory for Labour under Attlee – the first time it had won an overall majority. The result demonstrated that electors blamed the Conservatives, who had dominated the National Governments, for the social evils of the 1930s, especially unemployment, as well as for foreign policy failures. Labour offered a more wholehearted commitment to social reform – full employment, a housing drive and a National Health Service.

Labour’s hope that, with a mass electorate with a majority of working-class voters, it was now the natural party of government was, however, to be dashed. It gained widespread credit for establishing the Welfare State, but its belief in government planning of the economy, of which nationalisation was part, was less popular. Nationalisation of key sectors of the economy was accepted, though the results did not arouse great enthusiasm among either workers in the nationalised industries or consumers. But by 1951 electors were questioning both the need for further nationalisation and the competence of the government in managing the economy. Controls and austerity were increasingly unpopular.

Labour’s defeat in 1951 opened a debate in the party which continued for the rest of the century. The left believed that Labour should commit itself to a wholeheartedly socialist programme of nationalisation, state control of the economy and redistributive taxation – essentially waging a class war. To this was added from the late 1950s nuclear disarmament. The more moderate wing of the party argued that electoral success would only come by making Labour attractive to middle-class voters as well as traditional Labour supporters. These divisions helped to keep Labour out of power from 1951 to 1964. Gaitskell, leader from 1955 to 1963, failed to persuade the party to water down its commitment to further nationalisation.

Wilson and after
In 1964 Labour regained office under Harold Wilson, who promised to provide managerial efficiency in modernising the British economy. A key element in this was the reform of industrial relations, but opposition from the trade unions forced the government to abandon its plans. This, along with the devaluation of the pound in 1967, left electors feeling that Labour was no more able to solve Britain’s economic problems than the Conservatives. Labour lost the election of 1970. He promised to do so through ‘the white heat of technology’.

Edward Heath’s Conservative government (1970–74) had equal difficulty in tackling the problems of the economy and industrial relations. Not surprisingly, the two elections of 1974 showed that the electorate had no real confidence in either party. Labour returned to office in February 1974 without a majority. It gained a small majority in a second general election in October but lost it again in byelections. It was overtaken by an economic crisis resulting from a combination of Britain’s poor economic record and the 1973–4 oil crisis.

KEY POINT - Labour’s claim that its links with the trade unions would enable it to handle them more successfully than the Conservatives was undermined by a series of strikes (the ‘winter of discontent’) in 1978–9.

Labour was decisively defeated in 1979. The left, which believed that Labour had been defeated because it had not been socialist enough, gained control of the party. Michael Foot, who was elected leader in 1980, led it to a disastrous defeat in the 1983 election. Some Labour right wingers defected and formed the Social Democratic Party. Neil Kinnock, who replaced Foot in 1983, drove out the militant extremists and strove to return Labour to the centre ground.

KEY POINT - By 1992 Labour had regained public confidence sufficiently to cut the Conservative majority to 21, though it was disappointed not to have won the election.

The Conservatives
After their unexpected defeat in 1945, the Conservatives rebuilt their organisation and developed the idea of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, which accepted the welfare state. They also accepted most of Labour’s nationalisation measures and the commitment to full employment. The 1950s and 1960s were therefore a period of consensus politics. Consensus politics: the two parties agreed on the main social and economic policies. The Conservatives won three successive elections in 1951, 1955 and 1959 because they appeared to offer greater unity and competence than Labour, which was divided by the issue of nuclear disarmament. By 1964, however, Britain’s sluggish economic performance cast doubt on the government’s competence at the same time as it was hit by the Profumo scandal and a squabble over the succession to Macmillan. Hence the charge that the period 1951–64 was ‘thirteen wasted years’.

The Conservatives returned to power in 1970 under Heath, who was elected leader by a process more in keeping with a democratic party than that which had produced Douglas-Home in 1963. Heath was troubled, and eventually brought down, by the problem of the trade unions – a problem that also played a major part in bringing down the Labour governments which preceded and followed.

Following their defeat in 1974 the Conservatives looked for a new leader and new policies. With the election of Mrs Thatcher as leader in 1975 and as Prime Minister in 1979, they adopted monetarism as their economic policy. Government spending was cut, nationalised industries were privatised and trade union law was reformed. Economic policy which aimed to control inflation by controlling the money supply. These policies, known as Thatcherism, combined with Mrs Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands crisis, the popular sale of council houses and the turmoil in the Labour party, enabled the Conservatives to win the 1983 and 1987 elections.

Mrs Thatcher’s increasingly authoritarian attitude towards her colleagues and her refusal to back down over the highly unpopular poll tax led to her overthrow in 1990. She was succeeded by John Major, who, contrary to expectations, won the general election in 1992 but found himself saddled with a party increasingly divided over Europe.

KEY POINT - The 1979 election marked a turning point in post-war politics. Thatcherism represented the end of the consensus that had characterised the policies of the two parties in the previous 30 years.

The Liberals
The Liberals never recovered from the split between Asquith and Lloyd George. They came together sufficiently during the 1920s to gain 59 seats in 1929, but were again divided by the formation of the National Government. Half of the Liberals elected in 1931 supported the National Government. The independent Liberals were reduced to 33 MPs. In post-war elections the electoral system meant that they were ‘squeezed’ between the two main parties and were reduced to six MPs by 1951. Liberal candidates often came second in individual constituencies. Lacking the support of either business or the trade unions, they were at a considerable financial disadvantage. The number of Liberal MPs did not reflect the number of votes they gained even when their fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Not surprisingly, one of their main demands was proportional representation. In 1974 the Liberal’s share of the vote increased to 19 per cent, but they still gained only 14 seats. Proportional representation: electoral system which allocates seats to parties in proportion to the number of votes gained. Neither of the other parties was interested.

In the 1980s the Liberals formed an alliance with the SDP, which had split away from Labour in 1981. The Liberal-SDP Alliance won 23 seats in 1983, 22 in 1987 and, as the Liberal Democrats, 20 in 1992.


  • 1931 Formation of National Government (MacDonald)
  • 1940–45 Churchill’s wartime coalition
  • 1945 Election: Labour victory
  • 1951–64 Conservative ministries under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan
  • 1964 Election victory for Labour led by Wilson
  • 1970 Election: Wilson defeated by Heath
  • 1974–79 Labour ministries (Wilson and Callaghan)
  • 1979 Election: Mrs Thatcher becomes Prime Minister

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