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Perception and Political Posters

15 June 2012

Yesterday I attended a conference organised by Chris Burgess to coincide with the excellent ‘Picturing Politics’ exhibition at the People’s History Museum. One of the key issues discussed was the infamous 1978 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster produced by Saatchi and Saatchi on behalf of the Conservative Party. This brought out a number of interesting facts, including that the poster was only displayed at 20 sites, that none of the originals exist, that Thatcher didn’t like it, and that it was also shown in cinemas. It also raised an important question. Namely, why is it seen as historically important?

The poster was seen by some to represent the professionalisation of politics. It was the work of an external advertising agency and explicitly tied into a broader campaign strategy. Nevertheless, although on a smaller scale, similar techniques had been employed before  –  the Conservative Party had even invited an advertising agency to advise on strategy in 1949. Nor was the attacking tone entirely new. In fact, as the exhibition demonstrated, it drew upon a long lineage. With this in mind, other speakers pointed to the importance of perception and the poster as a site of ‘myth’.

This has got me thinking about how ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ fits into the broader narrative of twentieth century British Politics. And, specifically, about how this story is fundamentally shaped by perception.

Political history is, of course, full of possible examples to draw upon. But, in this case, I would argue that the most important is the 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy. This document set out a framework within which the government would intervene to ensure a ‘high and stable’ level of employment. By accepting that such intervention was possible, the document reinforced a belief that the mass unemployment of the 1930s was the result of a failure from within the political class. In this sense, the 1944 White Paper, like the poster, helped to shape a popular narrative. In focusing upon unemployment, both also helped to translate abstract political ideals into a heartfelt yet practical context.

The White Paper is important in one other way. Because, as well as reinforcing a myth of the 1930s, it also helped to define what would later be regarded as the post war consensus. This issue has been the topic of much historical debate (basically revolving around the extent to which Labour and the Conservatives shared the same objectives). Crucially, it was also fostered by Thatcher during the 1970s as a way to differentiate herself from a political establishment that appeared to be in decline. The 1978 poster was an attack on this constructed version of post war politics: a deliberate attempt to appear new.

If this is accepted, then the poster could perhaps be seen as symbolising the end of consensus. Not only was the emphasis on unemployment evidence that the framework adopted in 1944 had failed, but it was a deliberate rejection of past practice that helped to reinforce a perception of difference. Like the earlier White Paper, it helped to define a myth that remains potent.

If interested, you can see Thatcher’s annotated copy of the White Paper at:

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