As the Second World War neared its conclusion there was some hesitancy as to when the first General Election in almost a decade would take place. Although some constituencies had held by-elections during the hostilities the vast majority of voters had to get back into the rhythm of electioneering.
The widespread expectation was, that having led the nation to victory in the war, Churchill would go on to be elected by a grateful nation to carry it on into peacetime. Such were the crowds that greeted Churchill wherever he travelled during the campaign this result seemed more than likely. Pathe caught him at one huge gathering apologising for his lateness because of the ‘large enthusiastic crowds’ he had already encountered.
Political manifestos are infamously fallible guides as to what a party will actually do if it wins office. That is especially true in these uncertain times when policies might have to be traded away as the price of forming a coalition government.
But a manifesto can still tell us something about what a party stands for, its priorities, and how it thinks it can win votes.
For all that you hear about politicians making easy promises in their manifestos but never then delivering, the evidence is that most pledges in fact get carried out, if the party has a majority to do so.
‘Did BBC help win Labour the 1964 election by cancelling Steptoe and Son?’ asked The Daily Telegraph ‘How Steptoe and Son nearly cost Labour the 1964 election’ said The Daily Mail.The headlines themselves are new, appearing in the last few days, but the story may seem familiar.
Both papers were reporting that Harold Wilson, in the run up to what was a very tight election in 1964, was canny (or paranoid) enough to spot that the BBC planned to repeat an episode of its phenomenally popular comedy, Steptoe and Son in the last hour of polling. Wilson reckoned that the escapades of Albert Steptoe’s unexpected win on the Premium Bonds would be enough to keep vital working-class Labour voters at home and so scupper his chances of victory. In the end a successful lobbying campaign by Wilson led to the programme being pushed back until the polls had closed (it wasn’t cancelled as The Telegraph headline suggests – the BBC still wanted it in its schedules to hold viewers over into its election coverage).
In August 1931 the Labour Cabinet was at an impasse over the economic measures it needed to take in order to balance the nation’s books. By the end of the month the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had tendered his resignation to the King only to return to Downing Street – still Prime Minister – but this time the leader of a National Government.
Very soon MacDonald felt the need to appeal to the electorate for a fresh mandate and an election was held on Tuesday 27 October. Just as they had in the previous decade Pathe newsreels gave politicians the ideal opportunity to reach a large and captive audience at the cinema. In this film Ramsay MacDonald is heard making the case – particularly to hard-pressed housewives – for the continuation of the National Government. MacDonald’s appeal to the national interest above that of party and to the world economic crisis (rather than a merely home grown one) sound particularly familiar 80 years on.
There is plenty of research showing that being attractive pays off, particularly in business. Attractive people are more likely to be hired and make more money than the less attractive. There is also evidence that being attractive confers benefits in particular professions.
Attractive attorneys are more likely to make partner early, and patients feel more comfortable discussing their symptoms with an attractive doctor. And politics is no exception. Attractive politicians are more likely to be in election winners in countries around the world, includingBritain.
A few weeks ago word spread that Ed Miliband’s face would hardly feature in Labour’s election campaign leaflets after Guido Fawkes reported the party had allocated just 45 minutes for its 257 MPs to have a photo taken with their leader. David Cameron inevitably claimed Miliband was so unpopular Labour did not expect many to turn up. That is certainly possible. While recent polls show Miliband’s image is improving, his approval rating has long lagged behind Cameron’s, even amongst his own supporters. As of March 2015, 40 per cent of Labour supporters indicated they were dissatisfied with how Miliband was performing as leader, while less than 20 per cent of Conservative supporters said the same of Cameron.
Time will tell how far Labour will avoid featuring Miliband on its campaign materials. But we can plausibly predict what is likely to happen on the basis of the parties’ behaviour in 2010.
James Graham is that precious thing: a dramatist who takes politics seriously. Unlike his peers he does not use politics as the excuse for cheap jokes that exploit Britons’ ill-informed cynicism about those we elect to govern in our name.
His 2012 play This House looked at how Labour and Conservative whips were forced to work together during the minority Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s. It was a great success – at least with National Theatre audiences, an overwhelmingly middle class and mature group.
As in This House, so in his first television drama, Coalition, broadcast on Channel 4 on Saturday March 28. Here Graham shows how essentially decent men (and a woman) struggle with an almost impossible situation to make representative democracy work. In the case of Coalition he focuses on the five frenetic days between the 2010 election result and the formation of Britain’s first post-war coalition government, the beginning of what was sold as a new kind of politics.
In the face of an instantaneous, 24-hour, multi-platform media it is possible to forget that once upon a time we had to wait for our news. Before Twitter and Facebook, before even television, there was the cinema newsreel.
One of the most famous of the companies producing these films was Pathé. Originally set up in France in 1896, Pathé were soon capturing on film slices of everyday Victorian life as well as very public occasions such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations or the funeral of William Gladstone. By 1908 Pathé had developed the concept of the newsreel, with the first British one produced in 1909. Inevitably the rise of television eventually did for the cinema newsreel – Pathé put out its last edition of Pathé News in early-1970 – but in the intervening period they had captured many iconic moments and reported stories both big and small. Among these were the General Elections of the era, and in the lead up to this year’s election we look back at some of the Pathé footage connected to them.
Coalition, Channel 4’s dramatisation of events during the post-election negotiations in 2010 was probably never going to satisfy me. As an adviser to Nick Clegg at the time I had a ringside seat for some of the programme’s key moments: watching Paddy Ashdown’s speech to a gathering of Lib Dem parliamentarians, or waiting anxiously during another agonising call to Gordon Brown. At other times, like the negotiation meetings themselves or the Rose Garden press conference, I was just an anxious spectator watching the TV and waiting for my colleagues to come back and tell me how it went.
The programme could never truly reveal what that time felt like for those who found themselves in some way caught up in it. The sensation of watching history unfold alongside the selfish, anxious thrill of knowing the future of you and your friends could be utterly transformed by the result is not something the show could, or was even trying to, capture.