Use Your Head

Labour's election posters from the first half of the twentieth century offer a glimpse into the better world it promised working people.

Bristish citizens read campaign posters for the general election. (Photo by Ian Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The posters designed for the 1945 election might be some of Labour’s most famous campaign materials. They show a series of idealised, individual Labour voters: the old woman, the blue-collar worker, the intellectual left-winger, the housewife. Their faces are depicted in large pencil sketches, caricatured and slightly carnivalesque. Each represents a different hope for a Labour government.

The intellectual: ‘he’s got brains and doesn’t want them wasted: so it’s LABOUR FOR PROSPERITY’.

The working-class man: ‘No more dole queues: so it’s LABOUR FOR SECURITY’.

1924 general election (Images via Alamy)

The female figures are not considered voters in their own right, but motivation for other people’s votes. The elderly woman ‘laboured for you, now it’s LABOUR FOR HER’; the housewife ‘can’t make a home till she gets one, so it’s LABOUR FOR HOMES’.

Each poster includes on it a short sentence explaining more detail about the specific policy under discussion, promising ‘a full national effort for housing’ or ‘national control of industry’ to bring about ‘greater scope for managers, technicians and administrators’.

These 1945 posters are remarkable for their clarity of message and design, which created a unified brand for the party: the only colours are black and red, and the design focuses on clean lines, white space, a snappy headline, and a corresponding policy. Along with the manifesto Let Us Face the Future, which set out a bright new post-war world of a welfare state and full employment, the posters helped Attlee’s Labour to a landslide victory.

1945 general election (Images via Alamy)

Not all of Labour’s campaigns have been so carefully constructed. The party has a history of busy, brightly coloured posters that seem much further removed from modern ideals of political advertising. Some of Labour’s interwar posters ran with a football theme. One poster shows a footballer rising above his opponents to head the ball: the caption is ‘Use your head! Support your own team and vote Labour’. The rising striker is dressed in a yellow and black striped jersey; the importance of sticking to party colours had not yet been instilled.

Another shows a striker — in red this time — kicking a massive ball labelled ‘your vote’ into a goal, past a helpless keeper. The slogan ‘It’s Labour versus THE REST’ and ‘That’s where we want it’ is not especially snappy. Neither poster focuses on policy, and both seek to foster the idea that Labour voters were part of a defensive minority, who needed to think about their ‘own team’.

Similarly, another interwar poster shows workers streaming past a factory that declares ‘no hands wanted’ into a polling booth. The slogan ‘Men and Women Workers: your chance at last! The works are closed! BUT the ballot box is OPEN. Vote Labour in your OWN interests!’ is interesting for its attempt to appeal to female workers as voters (something that Labour struggled to do for most of the twentieth century), but also again for its explicitly divisive message. Asking voters to vote in their own interests might seem like a good approach; political ideology is, after all, often self-interest writ large. But voters don’t often like to be told that they are voting for selfish reasons.

1929 general election (Images via Alamy)

My favourite early Labour campaign poster takes the opposite approach: voting is presented as an altruistic act. In the poster — a copy of which I bought from the People’s History Museum, and which sits, in a frame, on top of a pile of books in my office — four adorable children are depicted processing down the street past a park. There is a girl, two boys, and a baby, who is being pushed in a cart and is wearing a red hat oddly reminiscent of a Phrygian cap. The children are obviously on their way to go fishing: the eldest boy carries a net, the youngest boy a jam jar, and the girl has picnic provisions in her bag. The scene is one of innocent adventure.

The poster looks like the front page of a children’s book and evokes a benign middle-class childhood, not the poverty and deprivation of many babies in the hungry thirties. The slogan: ‘Women, vote Labour: for the children’s sake’. The appeal to women, not mothers, is telling: female voters, a new constituency in the 1930s, are identified as a useful asset but can only be understood through constructions of maternity. I love this poster, in part because it sums up some of the complexities of political identity. But also because it’s oddly moving: a politics of hope, constructed in a moment just before the world descended into chaos.