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From the Archives #3

4 March 2012

Political history has tended to focus on the written word. Or, at least, on written sources like policy statements, manifestoes, transcripts of speeches, newspaper reports, diaries, public opinion polls and election results. Recent shifts towards a ‘New Political History’ have placed more emphasis on the spoken word and a broader ‘political culture’ but – even here – the shift has been less dramatic than might be expected.

As most academic work tends to take the form of publications, this is perhaps inevitable. But it does seem to risk presenting a two-dimensional view of a complex historical reality. And it certainly risks presenting issues in black-and-white.

In a very limited attempt to inject a little colour into my own research, I have recently spent a couple of days looking through some political posters, party election broadcasts and newsreels. The posters, in particular, have offered a very colourful insight into past political issues.

To take two recent examples. It is interesting to analyse the difference in approach taken by the Labour and Conservative parties in the 2010 general election. Capitalising on the unpopularity of Labour’s leader, the Conservatives adopted a fairly negative approach that sought to link Gordon Brown and Britain’s economic difficulties.

From the Conservative's flikr photostream

By contrast, Labour sought to move attention away from the economy and loosely drew upon the party’s earlier appeals to families.

From Labour's flikr photostream

Of course, as with more historical examples, it is very difficult to say whether either approach had much of an impact on the electorate. But they do give a sense as to each party’s approach. It will certainly be interesting to compare such examples with future campaigns.

To take a look at some historical examples, the Conservative Party’s Poster Archive is freely available online. Labour posters are a little harder to come. But, if you get the chance, there is an exhibition of some of the best political posters running until June 17th at the Peoples’ History Museum (Manchester). You can also check out the curator’s wordpress site from here.

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