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Inequality was also reflected in the general health of the country as a whole. Every year, thousands living in overcrowded housing with poor or no sanitation, died of infectious diseases including pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio.
National statistics showed that one in every twenty children died before their first birthday, but infant mortality was even worse in communities like Jarrow. Many people suffered with chronic, unresolved and debilitating medical conditions owing to a lack of available and affordable treatment.
In the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, one quarter of the entire British population was affected. Young adults were particularly vulnerable, and nearly 230,000 died.
By the late 1930s, there was widespread bitterness over the Means Test, which allocated limited unemployment benefit by combined household income, rather than on the basis of individual need. The Baldwin and then Chamberlain governments were seen as remote, uncaring and inaccessible; governing primarily for the wealthy and employed middle classes in London and the Southeast which remained, for the most part, a pocket of prosperity and consumer optimism.
The Labour Party successfully harnessed this residual simmering anger during their 1945 election campaign.
“Great economic blizzards swept the world in those years,” asserted the Labour manifesto. “The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men…They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.”
As future Labour MP Tony Benn explained, “In the ‘30s, we had mass unemployment…We had Fascism, we had rearmament. No unemployment in the war, we said. If you can have full employment to kill Germans, why in God’s name can’t you have full employment to build hospitals, build schools? And that was why we won. It was a rejection of 1930s Tory policy. It was just a determination to build a new society.”
Conservative (Lord) Peter Carrington, later Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher but then serving in the Grenadier Guards, observed, “I don’t think any member of my squadron voted Conservative…The very simple reason from their point of view was unemployment…A lot of them had been unemployed before the war. They blamed the pre-war (National) government which they thought was basically a Conservative government, it was as simple as that.”
Labour won the election with a crushing majority, and revered wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was relegated to Opposition even before the surrender of Japan. The vast majority of the armed forces had voted Labour, and the new government made it clear that this generation would not be abandoned as the last one had been.
It’s easy to see how this passage from the manifesto might have resonated: “The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Navy, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas – they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust.”
George Fairbrother is the author the Armstrong and Burton novels. His interests include cultural and working-class history, post-war British cinema, as well as classic rock and roll and early Hollywood. You can follow him on his website and on Facebook.
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