With its doors closed throughout January in order to finalise the Welcome Project to improve accessibility, Manchester’s People’s History Museum is celebrating the conclusion of its improvement works by using this year’s centenary of the UK’s first Labour Government as a reminder to visitors of the wealth of materials it holds, not only out on display in its galleries but in the depths of its extensive archives.  

By way of illustration, the museum extended an invitation to Northern Soul to take a backstage tour while the final touches for its reopening were being put in place. Darren Treadwell knowledgeably skimmed what can only have been the surface of the oceanic archive while Bob Dinn acted as an erudite guide to a selection of the more pertinent artefacts in the permanent exhibition.  

Greet The Dawn poster (1923). Image courtesy of People’s History Museum.

That first Labour administration of 1924 was short-lived, lacking the parliamentary majority necessary for longer tenure, and inheriting both the recent loss of the Irish Free State and increasing unemployment. Nonetheless, that Labour should have come into power at all represented a remarkable breakthrough, a feat achieved in less than two decades from the formation of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Its initial nine-month government owed much to a momentum that gathered from the election of its first MPs in 1906, and intensified following the unequal privations endured by the country during the First World War.  

Under the premiership of Ramsay MacDonald, who acted both as Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, the party introduced a number of reforms while managing to reduce the national debt. Most notably, through the 1924 Housing Act, Labour set the foundations for a programme of home-building that was to continue in the years that followed. Its aspirations are wonderfully embodied in A.S. Merritt’s poster Greet The Dawn: Give Labour Its Chance, on display in the galleries, the poetry of hope rendered in the image of a worker raising their arms as the sun rises over an industrial skyline.    

What’s striking now about the first clutch of 29 Labour MPs is how closely their life experiences mirrored those they were seeking to represent. All but one had left school by the age of ten, continuing their education through such institutions as the Trade Unions or temperance movements while working across a range of industrial occupations. The contrast with the majority of the party’s current front bench is, perhaps, telling. 

A similar distinction might be made between the visionary breadth of not only that barely post-war government but the one formed under Clement Attlee in the immediate aftermath of the second global conflict. In addition to delivering a National Health Service, to which Aneurin Bevan acted as midwife, Attlee’s government of 1945 to 1951 embarked on a far-ranging programme of nationalisation, bringing essential utilities such as coal and the railways under state control. It’s all a far cry from Keir Starmer abandoning much of his plans for green investment.  

For the people

Five years to finish the job poster (1966). Image courtesy of People’s History Museum.

The beauty of the People’s History Museum lies as much in its footnotes as its key exhibits, broadening out political history with the details of the lives of its times. For instance, a leaflet for a Socialist Sunday School evokes a parallel, near-forgotten secular tradition, eschewing God but proposing its own ten commandments, not the least of which includes the clause ‘be courteous to all men, bow down to none’. 

A particular gem is the campaigning image for a second Labour term under Harold Wilson, Five Years To Finish The Job. Making emblematic use of his trademark pipe, it is perhaps the only mainstream political poster to explicitly reference Surrealism in its iconography, apparently drawing its inspiration from Magritte’s The Treachery Of Images. 

Likewise, the archives, which can ordinarily be viewed only by prior arrangement, are rich with half-forgotten stories. They hold, for instance, a doodle of Conservative leader Edward Heath, sketched by Labour chancellor Denis Healey on his own copy of the party’s 1970 manifesto. In this case, the picture really does tell a story, as Healey was not only a prolific doodler but an artist proficient in watercolours and line drawing.  

With an election year in prospect, not only in the United Kingdom but, more ominously, the United States, such artefacts suggest that, to truly engage, politics requires less in the way of soundbites and more in the way of vision. More culture, fewer wars. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: First minutes of the Labour Representation Committee (1900). Image courtesy of People’s History Museum.


Clement Atlee campaign leaflet (1951). Image courtesy of People’s History Museum.

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