The public has historically perceived the political left, including the British Labour Party, as out-of-touch with modernity and skeptical of “capitalist” mass media, according to history professor Laura Beers. However, in her new book, Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Modern Labour Party, Beers argues that the Party was always plugged in and used contemporary media to its benefit since its inception in 1900. This media savvy had a major role in the Party’s landslide electoral victory in 1945, Beers concludes.
“Even though the Labour Party has suspicions about the mass media, they also saw media as an opportunity,” says Beers. “They were trying to make their way center stage from being a very marginal group.”
The book—which is based on Beers’ PhD dissertation work on British politics and media—is the result of several years of research in the United Kingdom. Beers spent countless hours pouring through media archives, newspapers, Party broadcasts, and Party publications, as well as internal documents from the trade union movement and the Conservative Party. “My research is a combination of looking at media sources and political sources,” says Beers. “Usually, people look at one or the other, but not how they interact together.”
What she found was that the Party used an array of media to its advantage, from small self-published papers to the BBC, mainly with the goal of reaching a broader constituency. “A lot of the media was directed to the working class,” says Beers. “But the media was particularly useful to get the Party’s message out to groups such as women who weren’t likely to come to a Labour demonstration, mostly because their social life was in the home and not in public, but also because they were more suspicious of the Party than their husbands. Also, to the middle classes, to show that the Labour Party wasn’t just the working man’s party, that it could be their party as well.”
Media outreach also involved monitoring the Party’s representation, by sending press releases, pitching story ideas to publications, or lobbying newsreels when they noticed that they were covered unfairly, according to Beers. Beyond these traditional formats, Beers says the Labour Party was at the avant-garde in the 1930’s and 1940’s for its use of poster art. “Labour’s imagery was very effective,” says Beers. “It’s one of the things that the Conservative Party has been very jealous and resentful of—that Labour uses visual media. A lot of the poster artists had genuine sympathies with the movement and did their work pro-bono. After the late 1920’s, the Labour Party paid market price for the best artists.”
Beers says she hopes the book will help broaden assumptions about the Labour Party—and the political left, in general. “[Your Britain] presents a picture of the Labour movement as being very engaged with the practicalities of the modern world, of mass democracy as it’s actually experienced by the voter; of being willing to play the game in a way that’s very progressive and forward-thinking.”
Currently, Beers has another book project in the works about women and party politics in Britain from 1918 to 2018—the first 100 years of women being able to vote in the UK. The book will examine how women have transformed party politics through their participation as voters, politicians, and activists.