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Home » Elections and Governance

Dole Queues and Demons: British Election Posters from the Conservative Party Archive

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 15:09

By Simon Gillon, Managing Editor, Government Gazette

The centrality of communication to politics in the UK reached both its zenith and its nadir in the decade or so from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s under the Labour administration of Tony Blair. As a result, today, politicians in Britain find it even harder to communicate their messages to a savvy and sceptical public audience. The more polished the political performance, the clearer the message, the more likely it is to be rejected by the public as false or cynical.

So it was with great interest that I started to read this lovely book published by the Bodleian Library towards the end of last year, on the subject of Conservative party election posters going back 100 years. The length of the perspective which the book is able to provide, covering a whole century, even though it is from only one country and only one party, makes it very insightful for anyone with an interest in this medium, whether in Europe or beyond.

And precisely because the theme of the book is so focused, it is able to provide a depth which a broader sweep of political posters from different countries or parties would have lacked.

The speech and the sound-bite which we hear today have always been the core of political communication, and they have been accompanied visually by the image in posters, from long before television TV and the internet. Indeed, this particular form of political communication, combining a short, pithy message with visual effect, is still of great importance today everywhere in the world. Poster campaigns still form the backdrop to elections throughout the world in this age of multiple modern media. Walk out of the bonanza of lights, music, adulatory colleagues, banal speeches and wild audience applause, and into the night air, and you’ll come face to face with a large and very attractive version of the politician who you just heard speaking to the party faithful.

The art of political communication seems to be at its most effective when it is making explicit what was previously a shared but unarticulated point of view. Sometimes blunt, sometimes subtle, sometimes capturing the essence of a problem, but always, it seems, at its most potent when tapping into the psyche just below the surface, expressing half-formed ideas succinctly and giving substance to common attitudes. It is very hard to change behaviour and attitudes, but it is possible persuasively to mould them and manoeuvre them to one’s political advantage. And the way to do this most effectively, indeed the only way to do it to any noticeable effect, is with right image and the right phrase at the right time. Sound bites alone drift into the ether and are soon forgotten. The image fixes them in the memory.

Maurice Saatchi’s words on the back cover and at the beginning of the foreword encapsulate this primary characteristic of the rich visual, socio-political and historical display of posters which follows : “Posters are to politics what poetry is to literature. The only possible words in the only possible order.”

After the useful preface, foreword and introduction, the book moves into its first two years, 1909-10. Among the references to beer and tobacco and the other important things in life, there are two colourful and visually interesting posters featuring references to the Welsh and the Chinese in terms expressing attitudes which were clearly widely held at the time, essentially blaming them for specific national problems.

With masterful understatement, the comment from the author is that “the poster uses contemporary racial stereotypes, which would not be considered acceptable today…” The Welsh may not yet be having the last laugh, but as European heads of state go to seek Chinese solutions to the Eurozone crisis, the Chinese almost certainly are (Zhou Enlai notwithstanding, in that it may be too early to say whether it is appropriate to use the word last).

One of the central themes of the current coalition government, which has been in office in the UK since mid 2010, has been that the previous Labour administration spent too much money. It has been helped in this in no small measure by a note left on the desk of the former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury to his successor, “There’s no money left”. It is rather alarming, therefore, on page 49 of the book, to find a poster referring to the spending levels of the previous Labour government as a cause of the financial crisis of August 1931. “Plus ça change…” as Conservative backbenchers are occasionally heard to say. It is somewhat demoralising though, to realise that the terms of the argument and the positions of both the main parties here haven’t actually changed in over 80 years.

In the poster, a red-headed (surely not another negative stereotype) twenty year old with a demented grin, a brown worker’s suit and a clown-sized huge, red bow-tie with the word “Socialism” written on it throws money into the air where it is blown all around him. The sacks at his feet from which he is grabbing his fistfuls of loot have the words Savings, British Credit, Workers Insurance Funds, Rates and Taxes, and National Security on them. The message is blunt and clear.

Similarly, a poster from 1951 shows a large pair of sheers cutting through a sheet of material with the words “Cut out government waste – vote Conservative” written on it. The editorial comment points out that, “The 1945-51 Labour government’s nationalisation programme had greatly extended the role of the state, and examples of wasteful spending were highlighted and attacked by the Conservative opposition.” The focus of the current political debate about the UK economy was set out in quite precise terms in the 1950s. Perhaps not so much a case of Huit Clos as of Groundhog Day.

One of the most iconic and successful images from political advertising in the UK is the “Labour isn’t Working” poster from 1978, produced by Saatchi and Saatchi for Margaret Thatcher. Beneath the words, a long dole queue coils round and stretches into the distance (hence the title of the book). The message was simple. It tapped into a public sentiment, capturing the essence of the economic and social problems of the time, and it offered a suggested way out of unemployment and economic decline “Britain’s better off with the Conservatives.”

I have always believed that historians would see John Major as a Prime Minister who stood head and shoulders above both his predecessor and his successor, although the poster on page 158, with a smiling Premier on a blue background and the words “You can only be sure with the Conservatives” from 1992, is about as bland as it gets.

His administration was beset with problems over Europe from within his party. By the time the well known poster from 1999 “In Europe, not run by Europe”, appeared, it seemed as if the Eurosceptic pre-occupation of many in the party in Westminster, local councils and the grass-root membership, had become enshrined in its own logo. And what better place for it? Although entrenching views held by many in the party, it did also have an appeal beyond the core, as it is effective both as a sound bite and a proposition of substance in practical terms: A very reasonable-sounding stance, appealing to the faithful, yet persuasive, and also quintessentially pithy – the essence of Saatchi’s definition.

A more blunt and less persuasive instance of preaching to the converted, which is a perfectly legitimate part of the purpose of advertising of this sort, comes from the 1992 poster “You can’t trust Labour”, with an L plate from a learner driver as the first letter of the word “Labour” suggesting Labour inexperience after so many years in opposition. As an advert, it may have shored up the believers, and that may well have been its prime purpose, but you either agreed or disagreed with it. There was nothing persuasive in its premise. “Let the lighthouse of Conservatism save SS Britain from the rocks of Socialism”, from 1929 is in a similar vein, although rather more visually attractive (deliberately so in both instances, of course).

While many European nations are used to coalition governments, the UK has not had one for over 50 years, so it is interesting to see the posters from the period of National Government in the 1930s. It would be a great political spectator sport to see what the reaction would be today if the “England Expects” poster from 1931 were to be unveiled and recycled: “England expects that every voter this day will do his duty – Support the National Government.”

The notion of duty in turning out to vote, of the concept of duty in general, and of stretching the idea of duty to imply supporting the government of the day in a time of crisis seem more alien than quaint in today’s world. As the author points out, for the audience at the time, the implications of the background picture on this poster, showing Nelson’s Column, with the Lions in Trafalgar Square, would not be lost on anyone.

By 1935 the stated reason to vote for the National Government is that “They put the nation first”, a laudable reason if ever there was one to vote for a party, though we may be tempted to ask, how could anyone or any party in politics ever conceive of doing anything other than putting the national above factional or personal interest?

In another poster from the same year, the slogan, above three football players passing the ball to each other is “It’s team work that counts – support National Government”. In that one, we can find echoes which still ring true today. With our coalition holding together in the 2010s in very testing times, there really is an appropriateness to the image and the text which cuts across the decades.

So while the visual styles change – it’s very easy to date every poster in the book to its decade correctly – the issues remain stubbornly similar over a century, and the methods of communicating what the parties intend to do about them also remain similar. Rather more alarmingly, what the same parties seem to be doing to address the same issues seems to remain stubbornly similar.

Indeed, it’s difficult not to have a certain world-weariness in one’s reaction when looking at a visually very attractive poster of a light brown sheet of parchment, with a red wax seal hanging from the lower right-hand corner on a blue ribbon, with a fist firmly touching the parchment as a sign of steadfast resolution, again from 1935. The text reads “Our word is our bond – covenant of the League of Nations – for world peace – vote National”.

As a snapshot of social and political history, the book is fascinating. As a book, Dole Queues and Demons is a delight to have and would make an ideal present for anyone studying political communication anywhere in the world. The concept is not unique – I have seen similar publications recently on Soviet propaganda art, travel posters, and general art deco posters, but the Bodleian has done itself proud in presenting this fascinating collection of posters covering a century of this artistic form of political communication.

The design is very simple and clean. The posters stand out in great quality reproduction, with a short explanatory note next to each one, and an interesting, short, written introduction to each decade to set the context of what follows. And as art, some of the posters really stand out. “Safeguarding is the Open Sesame” on page 35, from 1929, and “Join the March to Prosperity and Peace” on page 55, from 1935, are charming pictures in their own right.

Fascinating, insightful, well-made and definitely worth a look.

Stuart Ball

Dole Queues and Demons: British Election Posters from the Conservative Party Archive

Foreword by Maurice Saatchi

Price: £19.99

ISBN 978 1 85124 353 2

Extent: 160 pp

Pictures: 196 colour illustrations