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Britain Belongs To You (1959)

Courtesy of the Labour Party

Main image of Britain Belongs To You (1959)
BBC, tx. 21/9/1959, xx mins, black and white
Production CompanyBBC Television

With: Tony Benn, Woodrow Wyatt (presenters); Hugh Gaitskell; Richard Crossman

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A campaign report direct from Labour's Radio and TV operations room in London. Introduced by Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

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Labour lost the 1959 general election, its third reverse in a row. Many commentators claimed that the party had lost touch with young, affluent voters - specifically because of Labour's continued commitment to nationalisation but more broadly due to its 'old fashioned' image.

In fact, the party's television campaign was anything but antedeluvian. Labour's 1959 Party Election Broadcasts mimicked a television magazine programme, blatantly modelled on the BBC's early evening show Tonight (1957-65). This innovation was Tony Benn's (then still known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn). An MP since 1951, Benn had also worked as a BBC producer, and fronted the broadcasts along with Christopher Mayhew and Woodrow Wyatt, both Labour politicians familiar to viewers through their work on Panorama (BBC, 1953-).

Each broadcast lasted nearly 20 minutes, long by modern standards, but enough to allow Benn to please all elements in his party while, hopefully, still engaging viewers. His published diaries show what a task it was accommodating the demands of Labour's leading lights - in this case, party leader Hugh Gaitskell - to do what they all wanted: deliver short versions of their campaign speeches direct to camera. Gaitskell's talk is especially interesting given the rather crude way in which he was framed in order to establish his credentials as a world statesman-in-waiting. Seated at a big desk, before a map of the world and beside a large globe, Gaitskell explained how he would deal with the Soviet Union. This was an important issue during the Cold War, but the electorate rarely voted for a party on the basis of their foreign policy.

The remainder of the PEB employed humorous cartoons, graphics, film and interviews to convey the party's message that, first, it represented all the people, from miners to business men; and, second, that it would tackle pensioner poverty, which remained despite Conservative claims that people had 'never had it so good'. Later PEBs used celebrity endorsements, from the likes of Humphrey Lyttleton.

Reactions to the PEBs were mixed. Press reviews were generally positive, contrasting their energy with the complacency evident in the Conservative broadcasts. But some Labour insiders were more critical, perhaps confirming the view that elements in the party were reluctant to embrace modernity: records show that East Midlands activists, for example, thought the PEBs 'a little too "clever"'. However, 'clever' it might have been, Labour's television campaign failed to translate into a Commons majority.

Steven Fielding

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Video Clips
Complete fourth broadcast (19:54)
Party Election Broadcasts