Which side are you on?

Kate Feld

The People’s History Museum offers up an engaging new exhibition on the art of the political poster. It’s definitely got Kate Feld’s vote.

The new austerity is upon us, with rioting in the papers, the world economy in peril and ordinary Britons worried about how they’re going to put  presents under the tree. So maybe that’s why, even with no election on the immediate horizon, the Picturing Politics exhibition at the People’s History Museum feels timely. Political posters were originally an appeal to working Britons who didn’t have the time or money to spare on newspapers, but who’d see posters while walking around their cities. Lots of posters. In 1910, which saw elections in January and December, political posters covered two million square feet in London. That’s not advertising, that’s outdoor wallpaper.

Exhibition curator Chris Burgess, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nottingham, says the posters’ transitory nature is part of what that makes them so interesting. “One of the problems with looking at election posters is that, though they’ve been used for at least 110 years, each one is designed at a very specific time to speak to a very specific electorate.” Through the posters at the museum we can witness the rise and fall of great leaders, earth shattering world events and changes to society and daily life (women suddenly appear in 1918, often clutching babies, then after the Second World War we mainly disappear outside of family scenes. Uh huh).

But if the posters hold up a mirror to the British people, it’s a funhouse mirror. This is not the voting public as we really are, but as we are seen by the people who want to win our votes, with our needs, wants and fears exaggerated in whatever way they deem most likely to bring about the desired effect. Once produced by party members, they’re now shop windows for high-profile ad agencies, who sell a party and a politician like they sell us soap or insurance. We’ve come a long way from the days of Gerald Spencer Pryse, creator of hundreds of posters for the Labour party (such the striking Women – Vote Labour, from 1918, left). He was offered work by the Conservatives but declined citing his belief that “the workers have been given a raw deal in the industrial age.”

At PHM, a wonderful display takes apart each of the elements of the poster, examining the evolving interplay of text and image, and providing a fascinating catalogue of poster symbols still in use today; the strong leader who shines with the light of the sun, the shopping basket representing family interests, the British voters as children continually on the verge of being led astray by the nefarious politicians of the other party. At first glance, the detailed paintings of the Edwardian Tariff Reform battles seem positively antique next to the stark, photography-based posters currently in favour. But themes don’t really change. Think Saatchi & Saatchi were the first to use a line of unemployed workers to strike fear into voters’ hearts? “Going through the archive, the dole queue is quite a big thing. The idea of having to wait, of having your lives impeded in this way. There’s a poster from 1955 that simply says ‘no more queues’, and one from 1929 featuring unemployed voters streaming in to cast their ballots,” Burgess says. And we could well see it adorning posters again, he points out. “Unemployment will be a big issue in the next election, just as it has been a big issue in different elections throughout the century.”

In this age of mass media saturation, viral videos and smartphones the political poster may have outlived its usefulness. “We probably don’t need them anymore,” Burgess admits. “We don’t know how much of an impact they actually have – but we put them up to remind people that there’s an election on, or sometimes for parties to show voters they’re making an effort.” Can you imagine an election without them? We can’t. Here’s hoping that day never comes. In amongst all the consumer directives, it’s somewhat heartening to see ads urging us to make a decision, to do our civic duty, to stand up and be counted.

Picturing Politics: Exploring the Political Poster in Britain, through 17 June 2012, People’s History Museum, Left Bank, Spinningfields M3 3ER. Free.

Images, from top: The Only Hope is Tariff Reform, 1906; Women – Vote Labour, 1918; because Britain deserves better, 1997. All images courtesy of People’s History Museum.

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