BBC Radio 4 The Long View

Escalator to prosperity

I appeared on BBC Radio 4s the Long View this morning. Discussing the advertising and posters of the 1929 election with Dr Laura Beers from the University of Birmingham, Danny Finkelstein from The Times, Tony Blair’s former Political Director Matthew Doyle and the host Jonathan Freedland was a brilliant way to pass the day.

You can hear the programme on iplayer here.

One thing we didn’t have time to chat about was how some posters articulated Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin’s fear – a fear that had germinated following the General Strike – that society would fracture along class lines. Conservative posters showed all classes of British society enjoying the paternalism of Baldwin’s Conservatives. Such billboards provide a startling insight into a political leader’s mind.

Sun Ray Treatment

Election! Britain Votes

New Statesman

I’ve been working on the exhibition Election! Britain Votes, over the past six months or so. It has received lots of coverage, all of which has so far been positive. Stephanie Boland’s review in the New Statesman was particularly complimentary, but more pertinently Stephanie ‘got’ what I want the exhibitions I work on to achieve.

I don’t particularly think that good exhibitions should be campaigning. But museums should be spaces to think, places to ponder, which demand no definitive answers. We live in a world which has the propensity to ignore the complex and instead demand binary conclusions – good, bad: right, wrong. Instead, museums should explore ideas without demanding any real conclusions from the visitor. I always wanted Election! to be pro-voting and pro-democracy but hopefully it demystifies, doesn’t hector, and promotes thought.

You can read the whole article here.


Courtesy of the People’s History Museum


I have been staring at this poster by Gerald Spencer Pryse for a while trying to think what it reminded me of. Obviously Pryse took heavily from Christian art, but the words from Blake’s famous poem also fit well I think.


And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic Mills?


Artist discovered?

Courtesy of the People’s History Museum


I’ve written about the above poster before. It’s a striking design from 1910; the boldness of the central image marked out by a thick black line from the custard background. The piercing grey/blue eyes of ‘The House of Lords’, contrasts with the wit of ‘the people[’s]’ quiff. They all combine to create something of an ocular feast. The only thing lacking in the poster is a signature. I have no idea who designed it. A couple of days ago, however, someone put me on to a collection of posters in the Mundaneum in Belgium. You can see one, among the institution’s many examples, below. It is a Conservative poster mocking H.H. Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916. The poster simply asks ‘where is’ the cheap bread Asquith promised. The similarities between it and THE GLUTTON! are striking. The familiar layouts with their central image on a single block of colour, the – for want of a better term – fleshiness of the skin, and that thick black out-line. WHERE IS IT? is signed E Huskinson. This is Edward, a cartoonist, editor of Tatler from 1908 to1940 and regular poster designer for the Conservative party. But THE GLUTTON! is a poster for the Budget League, a pressure group linked both ideologically and through its leadership with the Liberal party. Was Huskinson designing posters for both sides in the years before 1910? I have never before found an artist working for two opposing parties, indeed, many were overtly partisan; but this didn’t mean it didn’t happen.  Is THE GLUTTON! a Huskinson design? Was he conducting work for both parties? Any thoughts?


Posters, Banksy, and not a donkey jacket…Parties, People and Elections: Political Communication since 1900 Conference Report

On Thursday 14th June, academics and advertising professionals gathered at the People’s History Museum in Manchester to discuss the past, present and future of political communication. The conference, sponsored by the Centre for British Politics, also marked the end of the exhibition Picturing Politics: Exploring the British Political Poster curated by PhD candidate Chris Burgess, who also organised the conference.

Most contributors focussed on the communication between political parties and the people, specifically how the former have tried to influence the later. What was immediately apparent is just how varied such communication can be. David Thackeray explored the communication between local candidates and electors in the form of election addresses. This set the mark for many of the papers as a strong theme emerged of the importance of communication previously ignored by historians. Nick Mansfield’s paper on political banners demonstrated that during the twentieth century these often-beautiful objects had a role in extra parliamentary democracy, single-issue pressure groups, and even intra-party communication. Mansfield’s findings demonstrate that there is much more to banners than the expression of nineteenth century masculine trade unionism. Jon Lawrence showed that even in those halcyon days before spin-doctors, politicians used their dress to speak to the people. An image of James Ramsay-MacDonald wearing a lounge suit and smoking a cigarette demonstrated the Labour leader’s modernity. Questions after Lawrence’s talk naturally led to discussion of that most iconic/infamous political garb, Michael Foot’s donkey jacket (which wasn’t a donkey jacket), which provoked many delegates to look at the guilty object during lunch as it is on display in the Museum. James Thompson also spoke of the visual, vividly describing the spectacle of Edwardian London County Council elections. Thompson argued that campaigning in the Edwardian period was as much about sight as about sound. He vividly spoke of a parade of floats used to persuade people to vote including a man standing on a ship with the accompanying slogan ‘one man one boat’, certainly the pun of the day.

Posters often literally loomed large in many papers. Stuart Ball referred to posters in his analysis of Conservative communication in the inter-war years. Former Saatchi employee and current researcher Graham Deakin examined the well-known poster Labour Isn’t Working and how it helped establish the 48 sheet bill board in elections after 1979. Rachel Grainger also focussed on Labour Isn’t Working, applying semiotic method to unpick the posters meaning. Chris Burgess also spoke in detail about Labour’s poster Yesterday’s Men and how it contributed to the formation of political communication during and after the 1970 election.

One of the key points that emerged from the discussion was the role of ‘professional’ or commercial advertising in political communication. Both Jon Lawrence and Stuart Ball highlighted media management as key to communication in the inter-war period. This was a theme picked up by Dominic Wring on his paper on Herbert Morrison, Labour and the 1937 London election, describing that as Labour’s first ‘professional campaign’. Jim Aulich found modern techniques outside the party structure. He demonstrated the sophistication of left-wing material designed to promote Soviet Russia to the British people during the Second World War. In the final paper of the day Simon Cross explored the changing nature of the party election broadcast. Cross’ paper provided a neat ending in that it argued that while much has changed with PEBs over the course of the second half of the 20th century strong continuities were evident. Indeed, a line emerged throughout the conference that while parties and communication experts often claimed to be innovating new techniques, in reality there was much reinvention.

The day ended with a round-table discussion. The panel included advertising executive and blogger Benedict Pringle (, ad-excutive and former head of the Lib Dem online campaign in the 2001 and 2005 elections Mark Pack ( Jon Lawrence, Stuart Ball, and academic and co-author of the latest Nuffield election study Philip Cowley. Professionalisation, in the form of the influence of US advisors, was a topic that concerned the panel. There was a general puzzlement as why British parties relied so heavily on such figures, given the radical difference between UK and American electoral conditions. Naturally, the future of campaigning came up and Mark Pack made the point that now the most widely read adverts were text messages. Phil Cowley also emphasised the contemporary importance of direct mail to political parties – and how little interest there was in studying this form of communication amongst journalists and academics alike. Those looking to research some new evidence for their PhD, take note.

The conference ended with a lively but inconclusive discussion on the political merits of Banksy’s work, provoked by a question from the floor.

Parties, People and Elections: Political Communication since 1900

To coincide with the end of the poster exhibition at the People’s History Museum, on the 14th June there will be a conference on Political Communication at the museum. A host of academics, advertising executives, and journalists have agreed to contribute. It is £25 for the day including lunch, and there are a limited number of places for post-graduate students. To see the conference timetable and register follow this link,-people-and-elections-political-communication-since-1900-call-for-papers.aspx.

A problem solved

The above poster is the collection of the People’s History Museum. Its been confusing me – and others – for a while. It is by Gerald Spencer Pryse, who produced posters for Labour from around 1910 to the 1930s. It’s obviously a Pryse, whose style, somehow more artistic, marked him out from other poster produces of the period. The mystery lies with the absence of words. One of the defining things about posters – certainly it defines the best posters – is the interaction of the text and image, the interplay between the verbal and visual.  Words both develop the pictorial message of the picture, but also anchor its meaning. Without words the image is entirely in the eye of the beholder, the text wrests some control back.

There is a another poster in the PHM collection, again by Pryse, similar to the above, but an image of male clerks, again without words. What were these posters for, who were they aimed at, what do they mean? I was working in the archive the other day and found this article.

The two posters formed, with a third larger design, a triptych. Pryse often worked in this form, two out-flanking posters with a larger one in the centre. Suddenly all has meaning, the text of the middle poster relates to the outside two. ‘Labour stands for all who work’.  Suddenly ‘all’ is a much more encompassing term.

Courtesy of the People's History Museum