As the war drew to a close, the Communist Party called for a Labour-led coalition to win the peace, before switching to support an outright Labour victory in the 1945 General Election.
The working class, especially in the armed forces, voted for a new society based on public ownership of key industries, economic planning, full employment, progressive taxation and a welfare state 'from cradle to grave including a National Health Service.
The people swept Churchill aside, giving Labour a 147-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Twenty-one Communist candidates won a total of 102,780 votes. Phil Piratin was elected in Mile End, east London, to join Willie Gallacher in Parliament. Harry Pollitt narrowly missed victory in Rhondda East by fewer than a thousand votes. In local elections soon after, 215 Communist councillors were elected across Britain.
Young people celebrated the new post-war world, too. In November 1945, in London, the Young Communist League and the National Union of Students participated in the founding congress of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. Within a few years, WFDY and its affiliates representing 30 million young people would hold their first spectacular World Festival of Youth and Students.
But at its 18th congress, also in November 1945, the Communist Party warned that 'unless the labour movement compels the government to change completely its present foreign policy, which is simply the continuation of the imperialist line of the Tory Party and the reactionary monopoly capitalists, there can be no fundamental social progress in Britain, and the whole future of this country is in grave peril'. The progressive alternative was a 'Britain free and independent', freedom for the colonies and drastic cuts in military expenditure.
On the domestic front, the Labour government enacted a substantial programme of reform. Coal, electricity, the railways, road transport and the Bank of England were all taken into public ownership. Communists supported these measures, while pointing out that generous compensation to the previous capitalist owners and the lack of workers' participation in the running of the nationalised industries would store up problems for the future.
With its National Insurance system, Labour's welfare state guaranteed state benefits for the sick, the unemployed, parents and widows; a pension for all retired workers; and free health care at the time of need. But means testing remained for some benefits, while the NHS and pensions system failed to make full or equal provision for women.
The Labour government's plans to build millions of new houses ran into difficulty through shortages of building materials, workers and finance. Yet military camps and apartment blocks stood empty, while returning troops and bombed-out families cried out for decent accommodation.
In July and August 1946, a wave of occupations hit former Army and RAF bases. From Middlesbrough, Doncaster and Scunthorpe to Birmingham and High Wycombe, local Communists led people to take over the huts and press the authorities to provide water, gas and electricity. Backed by some local Labour MPs and councils, the squatters elected camp committees to allocate resources and carry out repairs.
In London, Communist councillor and district secretary Ted Bramley spearheaded the invasion of vacant luxury flats in Tory-controlled boroughs. Stepney councillor Tubby Rosen shepherded a hundred homeless families into Duchess of Bedford House. Lord Ilchester's mansion was next. Another Communist councillor, Joyce Alergant, guided hundreds of people into a vacant block of flats formerly occupied by US soldiers. Councillor Joan McMichael, a member of the Party's executive committee, helped launch a second wave of occupations the following month.
The Labour Cabinet went into action, too, on September 9. It declared that 'this action has been instigated and organised by the Communist Party and must result in hindering rather than helping the arrangements made for the orderly rehousing of those in need of accommodation'.
Writs and eviction orders were issued against squatters and their leaders, four CP councillors were charged with conspiracy to incitement and trespass, and orders sent out to cut off supplies of power and water. Rather than place children at risk in violent confrontations with the police, the Party argued for a peaceful withdrawal from some of the main properties. Under pressure from mass demonstrations, many local authorities began to requisition empty premises and find accommodation for the squatters.
Communists, especially young Jewish ex-servicemen, were readier to use physical force against Britain's re-emerging fascist movement. Many took part in the activities of the '43 Group' which fought ferocious battles to deny Ridley Road and other London streets to Mosley's front organisations and, from 1948, his Union Movement.
Instead of making deeper inroads into the wealth and power of the capitalist class, including through far reaching democratisation of the state apparatus, the Labour government yielded to pressure from the City of London and US imperialism. They wanted the re-imposition of Treasury orthodoxy in place of loans and taxes to fund the welfare state and rebuild basic industries now in public ownership.
Labour renewed war-time credits with the US, but strings were attached. The US monopolists wanted control over the British economy, to promote the dollar as an international currency at the expense of the pound and create more profitable conditions for US capital in Britain.
This was, of course, linked to US foreign policy objectives to turn back the tide of socialism and Communism in Europe and launch an ideological, diplomatic and militarist offensive against the Soviet Union. Borrowing a phrase from chief Nazi propagandist Goebbels, Winston Churchill declared in the US that an 'iron curtain' had descended across Europe, dividing the continent and the world between Western 'freedom' and Soviet 'tyranny'.
From 1947, the Labour government tried to enforce austerity measures against the working class, supported by trade union leaders who agreed to police a regime of wage restraint. The Communist Party went into action as troops were used to break transport and power strikes.
Hard on the heels of socialist revolution in Czechoslovakia, national docks strikes in 1948 and 1949 brought anti-Soviet, anti-Communist hysteria to Britain. Hundreds of Communists were purged in the civil service and the power stations.
The TUC, the Labour Party and their joint National Council of Labour issued a new series of diktats demanding that CP members be banned from elected positions in unions and Trades Councils, and denouncing so-called 'Communist-front' organisations such as the Labour Research Department. In the National Union of Teachers, MI5 orchestrated a dirty tricks campaign against union president GCT Giles, who had pioneered the case for comprehensive education. Nonetheless, unions such as the miners, firefighters, boilermakers and furniture makers continued to elect Communist leaders.
The Daily Worker also retained broad support on the left of the labour movement. In February 1948, a special issue reprinted the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels to mark its centenary and sold 230,000 copies. Even more readers bought the May Day special. In July, a big peace conference called by the paper and sponsored by the British Peace Council featured Hewlett Johnson—the 'Red Dean' of Canterbury—as a principal speaker.
When the new-look Daily Worker came off the Goss press in the new building in Farringdon Road, a torchlight procession of 20,000 supporters carried editor Bill Rust shoulder-high to Clerkenwell Green, where he auctioned the first two copies for £45 each. The next day, he received a telegram from George Loveless, a descendant of one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834: 'Today is a proud day for us all. This is what our ancestors fought for. Long live the people's paper'.
Rust collapsed and died just three months later, still in his prime. His successor Johnny Campbell called him 'the greatest editor in British working class history'.
On the other wing of the labour movement, the TUC and Labour Party leaders were taking their anti-Communism into the international arena. The TUC assisted the American AFL-CIO in splitting the international trade union movement along Cold War lines in 1949.
A cabal headed by Prime Minister Attlee within the Labour Cabinet authorised the production of British atomic bombs, under US control. British troops waged war to defend British business interests against the Communist-led national liberation movement in Malaya. Foreign earnings and cheap imports were the vital products of imperialist super-exploitation.
When Royal Navy gunboats exchanged fire with Chinese Communist forces fighting the Nationalists across the Yangtze, in April 1949, the deaths of 42 British military personnel prompted some Tory papers and politicians to incite violence against the Communist Party at home. Public meetings in Dartmouth and Plymouth—both naval towns—were attacked by mobs and Pollitt sustained a severe back injury.
As China threw off Nationalist and imperialist rule, the Labour government helped found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)—six years before the Soviet Union and its allies established the Warsaw Pact. Soon after, US military bases spread across Britain, although for many years they were falsely badged as 'Royal Air Force' stations.
A new round of show trials, this time in the 'People's Democracies' of central and eastern Europe, followed a breach between the Soviet Union and Josef Tito's Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Once again, despite private reservations, most Communists in Britain and around the world believed that erstwhile comrades in Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were in fact saboteurs, imperialist spies and 'Trotskyist agents' in league with Tito.
The Party in Britain paid a price for such blind loyalty, losing some allies on the left while performing somersaults as Tito fell out of favour and then back in. It later became undeniable—especially once state, party and Comintern archives were opened—that these and previous show trials stemmed from the arbitrary abuse of power, involving severe breaches of socialist legality and gross violations of human rights.
Labour narrowly retained its parliamentary majority in February 1950. Gratitude to Labour for nationalising the coal industry helped defeat Willie Gallacher in the mining constituency of West Fife, while extensive boundary changes hit Phil Piratin's share of the poll even harder. The Communist vote slumped everywhere, not least as the consequence of unrelenting Cold War propaganda.
But the Party continued to fight Labour's austerity programme, with Electrical Trades Union general secretary Wally Stephens leading the charge to overturn the TUC general council's wage restraint policy in September 1950.
Two months later, Home Secretary Chuter Ede and the intelligence services tried their utmost to sabotage the congress of the World Peace Council in Sheffield. Eminent scientists, artists and philosophers were refused entry visas to Britain, although Pablo Picasso managed to get through the net and go for a much publicised haircut.
The Labour government decided to boost the armaments budget by two-thirds—in return for a further US loan—and send troops to help the US prop up the tottering dictatorship of Syngman Rhee in South Korea.
Consequently, when charges were imposed on NHS dentures and spectacles, three ministers resigned including Nye Bevan. An Old Bailey jury refused to convict Communist Dockers' leaders, killing off the wartime ban on strikes in essential industries. The Attlee government went down to defeat in the 1951 General Election, although Labour still polled more votes than the Tories.