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Pathe does elections: The Attlee Years

By Matthew Bailey and Philip Cowley 

As the Second World War neared its conclusion there was some hesitancy as to when the first General Election in almost a decade would take place. Although some constituencies had held by-elections during the hostilities the vast majority of voters had to get back into the rhythm of electioneering.

The widespread expectation was, that having led the nation to victory in the war, Churchill would go on to be elected by a grateful nation to carry it on into peacetime. Such were the crowds that greeted Churchill wherever he travelled during the campaign this result seemed more than likely. Pathe caught him at one huge gathering apologising for his lateness because of the ‘large enthusiastic crowds’ he had already encountered.

Pathe was to declare its neutrality in the forthcoming election and under just such a banner it gave the Party leaders their own voice. Included in their ‘The Parties Speak’ series were the familiar faces of Churchill for the Conservatives,

Attlee for Labour,

Sinclair for the Liberals,

as well as the Communist leader Harry Pollitt. Also too the less familiar face of J A Evans for the Commonwealth Party.

Pathe’s ‘Election Scene’ covered the voting – some of it exotic (just what does the Representation of the People Act have to say about allowing monkeys into the polling booth for instance?) and the aftermath. Despite his own personal victory in his constituency of Woodford, Churchill is shown on his last day as Prime Minister. The film then moves on to the victors including a speech from the new Prime Minister and a sign that nothing changes much in the world of political punditry as Herbert Morrison is ‘tipped as Britain’s Chancellor of Exchequer’.

Five years later in 1950, Pathe were on tenterhooks along with the rest of the Press as to when Attlee would go to the country and reported on reaction to the news that the Cabinet had finally decided on a date for an Election. As the film noted the election would be fought on a major redrawing of the Parliamentary constituencies, with plural voting abolished and 15 fewer seats in total.

Again, newsreel allowed the voters the opportunity of seeing and hearing the leaders of the opposing parties put their case to address electors, including Clement Attlee

defending his Government’s record and Winston Churchill

who was also recorded by Pathe trying out his lines and struggling with a frog in his throat,

However it wasn’t just the politicians who had their say in front of Pathe’s cameras at this election, the electorate got a chance to put their views across too as these two lovely films show:

‘Britain decides’ Pathe declared, opening its coverage of the results with the bold claim that ‘[i]n 600 years of Parliamentary history, never has there been a more dramatic election.’ The outcome was extremely close with Labour’s previous landslide majority of 1945 whittled down to just five seats. As the newsreel commentator says, ‘[f]orecasters were already prophesising another election’ and within twenty months that is just what Britain got.

Matthew Bailey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham. He has published work on a variety of topics regarding British politics. Philip Cowley is a Professor of Parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham and is the co-editor of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box‘. 


Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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