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Posters and politics: 10 things we know


The posters for the exhibition based on my PhD are on the wall. Matthew Parris is coming to cut the ribbon tonight. And the exhibition opens to the public tomorrow.

Here are ten things that come out of that exhibition.

1. British politics is as much about what we see as about what we hear.

2. There is ‘language’ of posters. Poster designers rely on the voter to understand a number of symbols and words. These symbols – like the pipe – drop in and out of favour. Some like the sun remain.

3. Poster design changes, but there is no systematic development. As a result, some posters look older than they actually are, and some relatively ancient examples have the look of something produced yesterday.

4. Political posters are ephemeral and transient. They aim to speak to a particular electorate from a specific election. Most are forgotten as quickly as they are produced.

5. If the job of Prime Minister’s is becoming increasingly ‘presidential’, it is because the diminishing power of Cabinet and Parliamentary scrutiny, not because leaders are promoted differently. The ‘presidential’ Prime Minister began in 1929 when Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals promoted their leaders above their parties. Even before this point, parties understood the electoral benefit of a popular leader.

6. The vitriolic attacks on Asquith, Chamberlain and the House of Lords before 1914 show that politics has long been ‘personal’.

7. Even after women won the vote on equal terms as men in 1928 the parties appealed to them not as individuals but as mothers and as holders of the domestic budget. I have only found two posters which appeal to female voters as workers.

8. Despite feminism, parties remain convinced that women should be appealed to in ‘special’ ways.

9. Posters can be the place where art and politics meet, although not always.

10. Posters aren’t static transmitters of information. They form a vibrant public politics of the street and, since 2010, the web. If posters are a throwback to the 19th century, they are the continued hurrah of Victorian politics: they remain vital to how the parties try to communicate with the people.

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