Callum Newton is a Senior Researcher at Onward.
Last month marked the 78th anniversary of Labour’s first landslide election victory. The 1945 general election was a major culture shock for the Conservatives, and it was the first election since 1906 in which they failed to win the popular vote. After a decade in Government, the war-weary Tories entered the election lacking new ideas and over-reliant on the popularity of their leader, Winston Churchill. In 2023, the modern Conservative Party faces a similar conundrum. It must learn the lessons of 1945 to avoid another historic defeat.
In many ways, Churchill ‘won the war but not the peace’. Riding high on the defeat of Germany and his membership of the ‘Big Three’ at Yalta, Churchill could credibly claim to be one of the world’s most eminent statesmen. He also had a record domestic approval rating of 83 per cent. But only three months after victory in Europe, the Tories suffered a humiliating defeat and Churchill was ousted from office.
Relying on Churchill’s popularity was a double-edged sword. During the campaign, his approval ratings slumped after claiming any government committed to implementing Socialist reforms “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo”. Almost two thirds of the British public thought his comments were unacceptable, and they cost the Conservatives dearly at the ballot box.
The Conservatives’ downfall was also attributed to a lack of vision. Although the Beveridge Report was commissioned under the Coalition Government, Labour successfully tapped into the public’s demand to ‘win the peace’. Labour’s ‘Let Us Face the Future’ manifesto advocated sweeping social reforms including establishing a welfare state and the National Health Service.
Labour’s manifesto also promised a popular house building programme. Much like today, housing was a strong political motivator – 54 per cent of voters believed it was the most important issue facing the country. By becoming the ‘party of builders’, Labour succeeded in selling a compelling vision to voters. Meanwhile, the Conservatives struggled to articulate a vision of similar magnitude, reverting to Churchill’s brand recognition by calling on voters to “Help Him Finish The Job” which failed to resonate with the public.
The echoes of 1945 can be heard in the run up to the 2024 election. After a series of scandals, the Tory brand is in dire straits, with the party polling at post-war low levels. The good news is Rishi Sunak is more popular than his party among all age groups, partly due to his leading role during the pandemic.
Although there is a clear ‘Sunak Effect’ among voters, running a presidential-style campaign exposes the Conservatives to the same risks as 1945. If the public think Sunak is failing to deliver on his five pledges, his brand won’t insulate him from criticism.
The Conservatives are also struggling to present a compelling vision on housing. As in 1945, Britain is gripped by a national housing crisis – an issue which remains a priority for over a fifth of voters. In short, the UK needs to build more homes. But the forces of NIMBY-ism have a powerful hold over a Conservative Party facing a Liberal Democrat insurgency across Middle England.
The Conservatives risk becoming the party of older homeowners whilst neglecting aspirational younger voters who are struggling to get onto the property ladder. Abandoning national housing targets and underspending on regeneration funds in the Department for Levelling Up are just two examples of a broader malaise. Meanwhile Labour have seized the initiative, promising to become the ‘party of builders’ by opening up the Green Belt for development. The public support this vision, with aspirational Gen X and Millennial voters now defecting to Labour as a result – putting the future of the Conservative’s electoral prospects in doubt.
The 1945 general election offers a warning to Conservatives. Running a presidential-style campaign is never without risks, and voters want an overarching vision from prospective Prime Ministers. Housing provides a solution on both fronts. First, delivering a clear housing strategy and reintroducing national targets gives aspirational voters a reason to support Conservatives again. Second, a strong vision will deny Labour’s ability to monopolise the housing debate – a crucial error in 1945 – and further strengthen the ‘Sunak Effect’ among key voter groups.
In 1945, the Tories were outflanked by a Labour party who realised the political power of an affordable roof over a family’s head. Conservatives should not make the same mistake again.