Labour Welfare Reforms

Last Updated: 15 Apr 2020
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How Successful were the Reforms of the Post War Labour Government 1945-51 in Solving the Social Problem that Faced Britain? By Nicole Anderson In May 1945, the coalition government that had steered Britain through the perilous days of the Second World War was finished. It was replaced by the Labour party who had the challenging task of rebuilding the country after the losses of the Second World War. The Labour government of 1945 made the first drastic steps towards the welfare state. William Beveridge had been commissioned to write a report on the causes of poverty and this became the basis for the Labour reforms.

These reforms identified that there were five ‘giants’ of poverty (Squalor, Want, Disease, Ignorance, and Idleness), all of which would have to be defeated in order to eradicate poverty. The attempts to tackle these giants varied greatly in their levels of success and achievements of the aims to defeat poverty. Right wing historian Barnett criticised the Labour government reforms saying that “expenditure should have been focussed on the economy”, especially after Britain’s involvement and loss in WW2.

Whereas, modern historian Martin Pugh defends these reforms arguing that the expense was worthwhile as the reforms dramatically reduced poverty and had a positive effect on the economy therefore stressing their importance. Therefore, I believe that it can be argued that the reforms of the Post War Labour government were successful in lessening the social problems that faced Britain through the tireless efforts of passing successful and adequate reforms.

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One of the five identified giants was “Want” which directly related to the poverty that was being experienced by Britain. Before, Britain failed to possess any sort of systematic security system and the few benefits that existed already were very selective and often means tested. However, in 1946 the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act was passed which provided compensation for injuries at work. This was a successful improvement for social conditions in Britain as it was the first time women got paid the same rate as men.

This was successful as it closed the gap between gender inequalities and also meant that women would also be able to pull themselves and their family out of poverty. In addition, the National Insurance Act of 1946 was also passed which was successful as it established the slogan of the Labour party “from cradle to grave”. It was one of its successes as it provided for all and all adults were involved – which can be argued again in strengthening the idea of equality among everyone.

It covered all stages of life that before were described as a struggle and included maternity, sickness, unemployment benefits, a retirement pension and a death grant. This was a successful notion as now everyone was given the opportunity to receive “a helping hand” and therefore, it made it easier for families to lift themselves out of poverty and create a better standard of living for themselves. Similarly, the National Assistance Act 1948 was successful in reducing the levels of poverty as it acted as a safety net to meet the needs of those not covered by National Insurance.

This again highlights Labour’s success in the field of reducing poverty as it encouraged and maintained the feeling of financial stability for the people of Britain, particularly of the lower classes – therefore boosting the success of the Labour reforms. However, on the other hand it can also be argued that its success is very limited as in theory; National Assistance was supposed to only act as a backup with most people being covered by National Insurance. However, this was not exactly the case and many were forced to apply for National Assistance which limited its success.

In addition to this limitation, by the early 1950s, 68% of all National Assistance went to supplement pensions. However, since National Assistance was still ‘means tested’ many old people were reluctant to apply for it! This limitation was due to the fact that they remembered the dreaded means test of the 1930s and it can be argued to limits its success as it meant this proportion of the populations remained unprotected and at a higher risk of poverty. Although, the opposite argument that it was successful essentially, should not be ultimately forgotten.

In can be argued that these reforms were an improvement to the old social security system even though it can also be this new system could be expanded. Another argument that illustrates its blatant success is that the real value of pensions increased dramatically since the 1930s meaning that the elderly population benefited from it enormously. In addition, historians such as Pat Thane argue that the social security system was of real advantage to women and lower classes – this was particularly successful as it showed how beneficial it was in their struggle to lift themselves out of poverty.

Historian Thane wholly backs up this viewpoint by stating the social security system was “a real advantage especially of many woman and also those of the lower middle class” therefore showing how the success of it affected all ends of the social spectrum. However, the most important piece of evidence to suggest its ultimate success is that Rowntree did a second survey of poverty in 1950 and found that poverty in York was down to 2%, compared to 36% in 1936. Therefore, this significant decrease is simple evidence that shows the dramatic impact of the Labour reforms related directly to “Want”.

Thus, it proves that in this sense these reforms were very successful. Disease was the second giant that was tackled and again, was arguably a reasonable success and even argued to be the “greatest achievement” of the welfare state. Beforehand, only less than half the population were covered by existing health insurance set by the Liberals in 1911. Those who were not covered still had to pay for a doctor at a great expense. In addition, hospitals still relied on voluntary efforts and therefore suffered as a result – these reforms were successful as they completely revolutionised this old system.

The NHS Act was passed in 1946 but came into practise by 1948. It offered a full range of help; free treatment from GPs, specialists, free hospital treatments, free eye and dental treatments, spectacles and hearing facilities – this would have greatly increased the overall health of the nation which boosts its success as a reform. However, on the other hand it is important to remember that this health care reform was of an enormous expense, to the point that National Insurance funds did not cover it.

This therefore meant that they had to backtrack on “free for all” and even had to place charges on prescriptions, spectacles and dental treatment which acts as its biggest limitation as it slightly contradicts its original intention. However, even though this was the case millions of people continued to be treated and their health improved nonetheless which illustrates its success Right wing historians argue that the NHS was too generous in allowing to get free dentures and prescriptions, that there were too wasteful of resources.

Furthermore, there still remains great historical debate that it seemed overgenerous for a country so recently battered economically by the world war. Critics similarly argue that the Labour government should have concentrated on the rebuilding of shattered industries than reforming the healthcare system so radically - Cornelli Bernett argues that the NHS was too expensive, and the government should have got the economy on track first. However, left wing historians argue very much in favour of it stating t was a radicalisation that was necessary to improve the health of Britain and that it is the government’s responsibility to look after the health of it’s population. Also, it is important to remember that those who were treated would be able to return to work and by doing this, contribute to the recovering economy – in the long term the economy would put itself back on track by a healthy workforce. This reform can also be said to be a success as it provided a universal health service without any insurance qualifications of any sort, this shows its success as anyone could qualify for it, meaning anyone could be helped.

However, the biggest factor that demonstrate its success is that the queues of people who claimed highlights the extent of the untreated problems – 8. 5million dental patients were treated in the first year and 5 million spectacles were issued. However, this can also be interpreted as people just being inquisitive or looking to get something for free though it seems much more pragmatic and concrete that it is simply illustrating the scale of the problem.

Another argument that shows its success is that it was free, so those who normally would fail to afford it had a chance to finally be treated, recover from their illness and pursue a career – earning a living, lifting them out of poverty and contributing to the economy.. Its success is based on the sheer amount accomplished from its start and therefore, it can be argued that again reforms in this area were of great success. The third giant tackled was “Ignorance” and focussed on the education of children in Britain. It can be argued that it was not the most successful factor although it cannot be denied that it did have some effect.

The problems faced before these reforms were in need of fixing – education was disrupted by the evacuation during the War, as well as the training of teachers. In addition there was a shortage of schools; most were in a poor condition which meant the quality of education was directly affected. The Education Act 1944 raised the school leaving age to 15 which can be argued to be successful as it expanded its accessibility. A three level education of technical, grammar and secondary modern schools were created which can also be argued to be reasonably successful as it catered for the specific needs and learning styles of Britain’s students.

The “11 plus” exam was created for this purpose which decided what type of school the child would attend. Its success can be determined as those who passed this exam, the system worked well for. It can be argued that this reform was successful as it offered working class children a chance to ultimately go to a good school and receive an education that would lead to a University degree and a better quality of life. However, the opposite argument suggests that these reforms were limited in success, especially those who failed this exam.

Its lack of credit is measured in the fact these children were expected to leave school by 15, go into low skilled work and thousands of children were basically trapped in a world of low paid work and inferior education – they were expected to fail. It was argued that it was unsuccessful as it was unfair to determine a child’s future at such a young age and ultimately, was not fair. The argument is that there was no equality of opportunity and 75% of pupils were classed as non-academic, completely diminishing the chances of going on to higher education.

However, the failures of this reform were not its only aspects; it did have some positive effect on the education system. One of its most important successes is that it raised the leaving age to 15 meaning that education was prolonged for thousands, education was begun to be seen as a right. It also meant that more of an opportunity was given those from a poorer background to access education – this demonstrates its reasonable success. In addition, another great success worthy of noting is that emergency training schemes for 35,000 teachers were established.

This is an important success as it generally raised the quality of education for pupils, improving their chances of better qualifications and extending their knowledge; a great success for their later lives. Another success is that free school milk was introduced which was beneficial as it provided nutrition for pupils also. Although this reform had obvious flaws it was accepted as a success due to the natural cause of post war problems; it was accepted that it would take a generation to solve these problems.

However, it may also be suggested that Labour cannot actually take credit for any of this success as the 1944 Education Act was R. A. Butler’s Act who was a Conservative. It can be argued there is a fine line between how successful the Labour Government was in bringing these improvements to education when originally, it was not theirs to bring. However, the majority of their input was through implementing these successful changes so credit towards them therefore cannot be overlooked. Overall, it can be argued that this reform was of limited success, especially considering the fact that Labour is a arty that stands for equality yet the whole new system of education was wholly divisive. However, it was not to the point where it can be classed as unsuccessful – it set the foundations for a fairer education system and was as successful as it could be considering the state of Britain after the war. The fourth giant was Squalor and focussed on the issue of housing and could also be argued to be a great success. 1945 saw overcrowding as a huge national dilemma, with approximately 750,000 houses destroyed during the War. There was also a desperate lack of workers and timber.

There was also a significant population increase by 1 million so more houses were an absolute need. The government’s priority became to house the homeless and did so by building “prefabs” or “factory made houses”, as well as building good quality council houses with low rents established through the Rent Controls Act. This was successful as it meant that everyone was entitled to a greater opportunity to own a good quality home for them and their family, and owning this was economically achievable through the low rent that was attached.

However, critics may argue that houses were built on too high a specification and concentrated on quality rather than quantity. However, this viewpoint can be argued to be classed as over critical as in the long term these houses were of high quality and lasted longer which generally, is of better value for the government. Another limitation that could be considered is that possibly more houses could have been built if more responsibility had been given to the private sector.

However true this claim may be, it cannot be denied that many houses were in fact built without the help of the private sector – between 1945 – 51, Labour built 1 million houses which helped greatly in dealing with the housing crisis, again a major success. It is obvious that the Labour government were successful in focussing on building homes for the working class as 4 out of 5 homes built were council houses, therefore it contradicts the arguments that more houses should have been built as in itself this is a great achievement to accomplish housing on this scale.

However, on the other hand there was still a considerate housing shortage in 1951 as well as long waiting lists for council houses. In addition, the 1951 census revealed that there were still 750,000 fewer houses than there were households in Britain. This was roughly the same level of homelessness as in 1951, clearly there was still room for improvement. Futhermore, historian Timmons argues that “traditionally, housing has been branded the welfare state failure of Bevan and the 1945 Labour Government”.

Despite this, overall it becomes obvious to see that the new council estates still vastly improved the state of crowded tenements and that millions of people were affected positively, even though these houses were still in a considerate demand many families housing conditions were improved. Although the record was not overwhelming it can be argued that Labour came close to its goal of 1945 in terms of the objectives of housing: quality and affordable working class homes Therefore, it can be concluded that reforms on housing can be deemed as successful as it paved the way for better housing reforms in the future.

The last giant tackled was “Idleness” that promised jobs for all. There was a desperate need to avoid an economic slump after the war and the fear of unemployment levels returning to those of the 1930s pushed the government to take action. This was done by encouraging “full employment” and was generally done so by careful planning. Local authority spending was encouraged in helping people to find jobs and the government also had success in controlling inflation with price controls and continuing rationing.

This was all seen as successful as it helped thousands of families earn themselves an adequate living through receiving employment that was capable of lifting them out of poverty. Another argument that illustrates its success is that many historians such as Brooke claim that “This was Labour’s single most important domestic achievement” which shows just how highly he regards its success. In addition, this reform was successful at dramatically reducing unemployment.

Bevan has previously said it was not possible to reduce unemployment below 3% yet this was achieved by Labour in 1946, which can be argued that this directly correlates to the success of this Labour reform. Another point that demonstrates its success is that Britain’s growth rates were better than America’s as a result, however it can be also argued that this was only because of the war there was a huge increase in the demand for British goods so Labour cannot take credit. There still remains an argument that whichever government was in power there would have been full employment, that it was a factor outwith government control.

It can be argued that this is mainly due to the fact that world demand meaning that Britain could sell its exports. This was also accelerated by the fact that all countries needed to restock due to the damage of the war, therefore suggesting that the government did not have to create jobs itself. On the other hand, so much improvement in unemployment was achieved during this time that it seems only natural to credit Labour’s work as it was their action that ultimately was fulfilled.

This was made even more impressive by a climate of crisis and diminished resources, a true success for the Labour government. Furthermore, economic historians tend to conclude that it was difficult to see how Labour’s performance could be improved upon. Thus, it can be concluded that Labour’s efforts to provide jobs for all was very successful. Overall, it seems obvious to conclude that the Labour Welfare reforms all had some sort of positive impact on Britain during 1945 – 51.

However, it is important to consider that each reform varied in success and ultimately, some were more successful than others. The reforms dealing with poverty dramatically decreased the numbers of those living in poverty and helped families to claim benefits that were desperately needed; and thus may be deemed as a success if you consider the sheer amount of families that were helped. The NHS helped reduce the numbers of those who were sick yet at a great expense and so can be argued as less successful but still a great achievement for the Welfare state.

It can also be argued that reforms tackling “Ignorance” were not as successful either with the controversial 11-plus exam yet the quality of education was still improved and the school leaving age was raised so it would be unfair to argue that it did not bring in some positive elements to the education system. Similarly, the issue of housing was addressed quite successfully with the problem of homelessness being tackled by the mass expansion of council housing estates. The success of reducing unemployment was noticeable also with the lowest figures of unemployment Britain had ever experienced.

Therefore, it can be seen that the Labour Welfare reforms were mostly of great success with the exception of the need of a fairer education system. However, it can be clear to see that all the successes that each reform brought definitely affected millions of the British public in terms of improving health, housing, education, employment and general standard of living. Overall, despite all the problems that Britain faced after the war, Labour completed the Welfare State and successfully managed full employment, thus proving that their reforms were of great success in solving Britain’s social problems between 1945 – 51.

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Labour Welfare Reforms. (2017, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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