Media and the Making of the Labour Party
Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: Harvard University Press, 2010
Hardback. x-258 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-05002-0. £22.95
Reviewed by Michael Parsons
Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, France
Labour’s relationship with the media and the techniques of political communication has, as we all know, had its ups and downs. The early period of the party’s history is often considered as having had substantially more “downs” than “ups”. The media was dominated by a capitalist press and Reith’s BBC had more sympathy with the Conservatives than with the rising Labour party. Moreover Labour’s approach to the media and political communication was sometimes handicapped by a leadership which preferred its political message to be distributed through serious, though dull, newspapers and political material rather than through the popular press, which many of them thought was too frivolous or meretricious. But this is only part of the story, as Laura Beers makes it clear in her highly readable Your Britain, which presents a dynamic picture of the development of the media and the way Labour learnt to get its message across to an increasingly broad spectrum of society.
Labour’s victory in 1945 is often explained in terms of the values forged during the Second World War and of rejection of the 1930s experience of unemployment, depression and appeasement. Laura Beers suggests that more attention also needs to be paid to the contribution of Labour’s changing approach to the media to the rise in the party’s fortunes from its creation at the turn of the century to its landslide victory under Clement Attlee.
Laura Beers invites us to take a fresh look at Labour’s relations with the media and political communication. Labour deliberately decided in the 1920s and early 1930s to reach out to as wide a constituency as possible, emphasising policies of practical reform which could appeal to “workers by hand or by brain”, and made sometimes inspired use of the media to get this message across. The election campaign of 1945 continued in the same vein.
The road to successful relations with the media was not always an easy one, though it did not start out as badly as many people might suggest: after all, the Daily Mail actually offered to give the party an opportunity to express its values in 1918. Of course the “Red Scare” and above all the Zinoviev letter of 1924, an attempt to portray Labour as essentially subservient to Moscow, and the coverage of the General Strike of 1926 both underlined the need for Labour to improve its political communication and to explore all possible avenues through which Labour’s values and policies could be presented.
However there was always a strand within Labour which looked down on the methods of the popular media and had an ideological aversion to dealing with the capitalist press, and this view prevailed for some time during the early 1920s. But there were also several people in the party who pressed for a more constructive approach, including Herbert Morrison and also “Red” Ellen Wilkinson, who wrote regularly for the Beaverbrook press. The General Strike was undoubtedly a turning point which persuaded the party that it needed to use all available weapons to beat the Conservatives.
Radio also became an increasingly popular medium during the 1920s and 30s and Laura Beers shows how Labour learnt to use it effectively. Morrison, for example, was very good at broadcasting and encouraged the party to make better use of the radio and argue, with some success, that Labour’s position as official opposition should give it better access.
Labour of course had a newspaper, the Daily Herald, to which Labour supporters were encouraged to subscribe. However many in the party leadership were reluctant to adopt the gimmicks used by the rest of the popular press in the circulation war of the 1920s and 30s, such as free insurance; nor were they keen on brightening up the paper by introducing photos, a women’s section and so on. Ernest Bevin and others fought for a major investment in the paper to boost its circulation, and were hugely successful: the Daily Herald reached one million, and then, in 1935, two million readers, the first of Britain’s popular newspapers to do so. Laura Beers argues convincingly that this had an effect well beyond the already important fact that so many households were getting Labour’s message: the success of the Herald showed that it was possible for a newspaper aimed at the working class to reach such high levels of readership and attract the advertisers it needed to be economically sound. This message was not lost on the Daily Mirror, which had begun to move to the left in the mid 1930s. The Mirror almost certainly had a greater impact on public opinion than the Herald, but the Labour paper’s successful example made it easier for the Mirror to follow.
Laura Beers also highlights an area in which Labour was often much better than the Conservatives at getting its message across to the public, and that was its remarkable use of posters. Although the party had less to spend on poster advertising, it made up for it by emphasising quality, commissioning artists to produce striking posters which were widely admired. She also recalls the success of some of Labour’s political leaflets, including the one which she uses as the title of her book, Your Britain, which sold in very large numbers.
All in all Your Britain succeeds in its goal of showing that far from being handicapped by a failure to grasp the opportunity presented by the fast-developing media of the first half of the twentieth century, Labour made sophisticated and inspired use of them to project a broad-based programme which appealed not only to the left but also to the centre. Labour’s victory in 1945 was not due to this alone, but to leave out this dimension would be to miss an important part of the picture. As Laura Beers says in her concluding sentence:
We cannot understand Labour’s long road to 1945 without understanding the party’s commitment both to constructing a cohesive political program that could appeal to a broad national coalition and to selling that vision of politics to the public through the new media of mass democracy .
Readers of Your Britain will not only have this fuller understanding of the road to 1945 but will also have enjoyed reading a lively and stimulating account of Labour’s struggle to “present itself as the natural representative of the British nation” and its successful strategy of “selling socialism to the masses” .
Cercles © 2011