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Political posters in history

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Why does a huge image of David Cameron dominate the Conservative's new election poster? Is it because, with his shirt-unbuttoned, this Man of Action is telling us that he personally will crack the deficit problem? Or is this just another example of Cameron aping the former Labour leader Tony Blair, another instance in which he wants to be the heir to Blair and continue his supposedly presidential style of politics? Or is this style of leadership marketing part of a longer, political tradition?

Those who have analysed this poster campaign claim it echoes New Labour's 1997 marketing, when a youthful Tony Blair fronted the party's election material, marking his supposedly presidential style of politics. But presenting party leaders as 'presidential' is not new. The poster of Cameron is as comparable with 1929 depictions of Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, as it is of the more recent Labour propaganda featuring Tony Blair. Therefore, while there are plenty of similarities with Labour's 1997 campaign, to get at the fuller significance of Cameron's new poster we need to go much further back in political history.

As long ago as the election of 1929 the Conservatives produced overtly 'presidential' posters. S.H. Benson, a high profile advertising agency, was employed by the Conservatives to produce election material for the party. The Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, was frequently at the fore front of this campaign. One poster showed a austere photograph of Baldwin under the Tories election slogan 'Safety First', with a caption at the bottom that read 'Stanley Baldwin the Man You Can Trust!'.

The parallels between the Conservative posters of 1929 and 2010 are startling. Both men project an aura of seriousness, attempting to persuade the voter that only they have the necessary gravitas to lead the country. Both posters are about one man, the leader: Cameron like Blair is just one of a very long line of 'presidential' leaders. In both posters the party is notably absent - knowing how low in public esteem they are held, parties are often all too happy to hide behind what they hope will be the winning personality of their leader. The 1929 poster does not even mention the Conservative Party at all. In 2010 the tree logo is strikingly absent, with only the election slogan 'year for change' and website details visible.

Political posters that feature the leader are all about exploiting or trying to establish trust between the leader and those they hope will vote for their party. They are an attempt to prove to the public that the United Kingdom is safe in their hands. In another 1929 poster, Baldwin is seen steering a ship through a storm with the slogan 'Trust Baldwin he will steer you to safety!'. The trust demanded by Cameron is less implicit but still evident, trust him to 'cut the deficit, not the NHS.'

Baldwin's image, the one on which he pitched his bid for the people's trust, was based on his personal uprightness. His public school and Oxbridge education is the same as Cameron's, yet the way they appealed for the public's trust is subtly different and indicates how much politics has changed in the intervening decades. While Baldwin was presented as an upright and even uptight statesmen, in stiff collar and tie, Cameron is presented as being more open and relaxed - like Blair c. 1997 (who himself aped Robert Kennedy c.1968). This is because Cameron wants to be a seen as a man of the people, 'one of us' whereas Baldwin came from an era in which the political class could rely on a degree of deference and were often expected to show their superiority.

Cameron is not the first party leader to use posters to convey their common touch. Nor was Blair. In the 1929 election, the Labour leader James Ramsay MacDonald was depicted with a girl dressed as a modish flapper. The passing of the Equal Representation Act in 1928 had given the vote to all women over the age of 21 and politicians were keen to attract the new voters. Thus MacDonald was depicted as the modern man, unlike his stuffy counterpart Baldwin. Significantly, it is claimed that one of Gordon Brown's presentational weaknesses is his apparent inability to relax, that he seems to have been born in a suit; he must hark back to the days of Baldwin with some nostalgia.

It was, however, in the 1960s when posters were most explicitly used to highlight a leader's empathy with the 'common people'. In the run up to the 1964 election Harold Wilson was depicted in a poster titled 'People Matter'. He was pictured in an ordinary street, shaking hands with 'his' people. The pipe which became Wilson's trademark was a further sign of his normality - although in private he favoured the more plutocratic cigar. Gordon Reece famously re-branded Mrs Thatcher prior to the 1979 election, making her lose 'those hats' and lower her voice to seem less hostile. But it should not be forgotten that the brilliant economist and political loner, Wilson, underwent a similar transformation to become the pipe-smoking, HP Sauce-loving, mac-wearing cheeky-chappy depicted in Labour propaganda.

The new Conservative Party poster, which depicts a presidential Cameron, ready for action to cut the deficit and protect our NHS, is a construct of public relations and advertising. In this respect he is not just like Tony Blair, but also all of his predecessors, arguably all the way back to Gladstone and beyond. Politicians and political parties are in the game of selling themselves, but in the 'science' of twenty-first century politics this is just more overt. When a politician claims that they are un-spun, this is when they are at their most spun.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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