Having governed, in coalition and as a single party for eleven years, the Labour Government which had scrapped back into power in 1950 was looking increasingly lethargic and directionless. As this Pathe film notes, ‘with a hard winter ahead and with the threat of a split in his party’ Clement Attlee in 1951 decided to put his case once more to the country in hope of a greater majority.
Despite the National Liberals the narration is clear that the forthcoming election would ‘resolve into a two party fight’ (and the Liberal vote indeed dropped to just 2.5% of the national vote). This was a battle between Labour and Conservative visions for Britain in the 1950s, reflected in the vox pops conducted by Pathe’s reporter – including an almost incomprehensible workman who pops up from his manhole.
The Conservatives opened the campaign in an upbeat mood and with a solid lead in the polls. Churchill, captured here launching the Tory campaign in the seat of Labour’s Bessie Braddock, was determined to take the fight to Labour. Nonetheless, the tone of his oratory is notably calmer – ‘this will be no vindictive triumph for Tories over socialists’ – than his rhetoric in 1945.
Pathe also filmed the Labour Party at its conference preparing for the fight ahead, with Attlee setting out his idea of the society Labour wanted to forge.
The militaristic language of the film’s announcer and that of Attlee were prescient as one theme of the campaign was Labour’s attempt to portray Churchill as an unreconstructed warmonger – a campaign helped by the Daily Mirror’s continuous question ‘Whose finger on the Trigger?’, culminating in a striking front page on election day itself.
Churchill sued the paper for defamation, and went on to win the election. Whether or not the Mirror’s campaign had helped Labour, Churchill’s first General Election win – by 16 seats – was more muted than many had expected. Pathe reported the thrills and spills of Election Day (although not it appears for Mrs Attlee, captured knitting in her car as her husband visits the polling stations) and records a victorious Churchill still in consolatory mood, wishing to see ‘the good in our opponents’.
By the time of the 1955 General Election, Churchill had retired and it was the new Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, who took the Conservative argument to the country.
The 1955 election has been called the ‘dullest’ election – although this sobriquet usually attaches itself to any election currently being fought. However, if little appeared to happen the Conservatives did increase their majority to 60 seats and the result was notable in at least one way from today’s perspective – it was the last time the Tories won the majority of seats in Scotland.
Ever chipper about the British democratic system Pathe’s coverage of election day opens with crowds in Piccadilly Circus and the announcement that ‘rain cannot damp the excitement as the first results come in.’ In fact, the rain gets appreciably heavier and it is testimony to the crowd’s enthusiasm (and in spite the fact that the BBC was now covering its third election night on television
that they stay at all. The film is distinguished too by some rather hands on #Attleefandom as he is filmed visiting a factory in his Walthamstow constituency.
Four years later Britain was back at the polls and again the Conservatives entered the contest with a different leader, Harold Macmillian, as did both the Labour and Liberal Parties under Hugh Gaitskell and Jo Grimond respectively.
The Tories went into the campaign buoyed by an economic up-turn (‘Life is better with the Conservatives, don’t let Labour ruin it’ ran the slogan) and a genuinely popular leader. The Liberals managed to show some signs of revival, albeit not in terms of seats. The Labour Party meanwhile ran an effective campaign; it used television particularly strongly, the very format that was undermining the output of the likes of Pathe itself.
Yet, Pathe continued to sum up events for cinema-goers, reporting Macmillan’s landslide majority of 100 seats under the title ‘Tories Triumph’. Again Pathe’s breezy marvel and faith in the workings of British democracy is to the fore. Chastisement, more in sorrow than anything else, is reserved for the ‘incurably apathetic few’ and one senses by the tone of the commentary, Oswald Mosely. And finally, just to prove it wasn’t just Attlee (or, as now Miliband) that had ‘it’ with women watch out, from 1:20, for the appearance of well-known lady’s man, Hugh Gaitskell – what a bea!
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‘.