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Labour Party Election Broadcast (17 October 1951)

Courtesy of the Labour Party

Main image of Labour Party Election Broadcast (17 October 1951)
BBC, tx. 17/10/1951, xx mins, black and white
Production CompanyBBC Television

With: Christopher Mayhew, Sir Hartley Shawcross

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Christopher Mayhew and Sir Hartley Shawcross try to make the Labour Party appealing to the television-owning middle classes.

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The 1951 general election ended Labour's six years in office. Although the party won more votes than the Conservatives, the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system meant Winston Churchill, not Clement Attlee, ended up with the Commons majority. One crucial reason for this was the Conservatives' strategy of targeting the middle-class vote, which saw it attract two-thirds of such voters' support, against Labour's one-fifth, winning the party vital marginal constituencies.

Labour made some effort to win over the middle class - as demonstrated by this Party Election Broadcast, the first Labour ever produced. Of course, the party knew that at this time the television audience was unlikely to be very working class - television sets cost too much.

The broadcast shows the party already trying to adapt to the needs of television. The format is essentially a chat between two of Labour's more middle-class figures: Sir Hartley Shawcross, a member of Attlee's cabinet, and Christopher Mayhew, a junior minister until he lost his seat in 1950. Mayhew was an established television performer, having delivered talks on the BBC since leaving the Commons, and it shows in his relaxed manner. He subsequently worked for the BBC's Panorama (1953-), and helped present other Labour PEBs. The older Shawcross was clearly less at ease. Sat behind a desk, he strains to avoid addressing viewers as if they were at a public meeting rather than sat at home; his hand movements and the insistent forward thrust of his body show he didn't always succeed.

Other than the appeal to the middle class - Mayhew asks of Shawcross how "someone so well dressed, so well educated and so well off" could be a member of the party - the use of reason over emotion to appeal to 'fair-minded' middle-class viewer is the broadcast's most noteworthy aspect. Mayhew's calm exposure of distorted Conservative propaganda presented to viewers by Sir Anthony Eden the previous evening couldn't have worked on a noisy public platform.

Ironically, given the broadcast's attempt to woo the middle class, both men later left the Labour party. Even while he served in the cabinet, some Labour members, predicting his imminent departure for the Conservatives, called Shawcross 'Sir Shortly Floorcross'; he became a House of Lords cross-bencher in 1959 and in the 1980s supported the SDP. Mayhew actually did cross the floor in 1974 when he joined the Liberals after complaining Labour had become dominated by the trade unions.

Steven Fielding

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Video Clips
Complete broadcast (18:49)
Party Election Broadcasts