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Power to the people

In 1909, the Labour party – then still in its infancy – had a fantastic election poster. The image had as its background a dusty silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, giving way to a horizontal wilderness of factory chimneys, whose smoke spilled into the tan air. In the foreground, a crew of beefy working men, all cloth caps and rolled sleeves and dark tunics, were smashing through the doors of the Lords with battering rams. "Labour clears the way," ran the slogan.

Nowadays, the only reason Labour would be barging into the upper house would be to check the Pugin wallpaper and to claim their attendance allowances. But this was back when the Lords were blocking Lloyd George's redistributive budget, and Labour was still young, in spirit and in fact.

By chance, the rumblings of this year's election runup have coincided with the People's History Museum in Manchester reopening after a two-year revamp. Its archive of posters and banners, including Labour Clears the Way, offers an interesting counterpoint. The archive is full of beautiful, intriguing things: a Tory poster showing a glum art deco Britannia presiding serenely over crates of colonial goods being unpacked on the docks; a vorticist-style Ban the Bomb poster with squadrons of red planes dropping exclamation marks; and an ad for the Co-op's self-raising flour that would give the socialist realism of Stalin's Russia a run for its money.

The thing is, many of these posters have an appeal as pieces of art, over and above their value as propaganda. The political posters of today seem a poor, sterile thing by comparison. You might put one in your window facing outwards, but you wouldn't want to hang one on your wall facing inwards. In part, of course, old posters have an element of kitsch in their appeal; they're a window to a lost world. But mostly, today's political posters are just ugly. There are three reasons why.

The first is an evacuation of ideology – or, at least, a move away from it. Few posters now aim to symbolise an abstract idea, be it striking the chains from the workers' wrists, or the glorious bounties of empire.

The second thing is the move towards negative campaigning. My objection to this is not the traditional one: that it debases politics. It's that it makes the posters crass and forgettable. If your poster is a picture of the other guy, you don't want to make it memorable or beautiful. You don't want your enemy looking iconic. Hence, perhaps, the failure of the Tories' 1997 posters. Given a choice between Demon Eyes and Four Eyes, people voted demon.

The third thing is the shift from screenprinting to (digitally altered) photographs. Political posters are not now about trying to establish an icon, a created image; they're about fakey verite and larky deprecation. Is Thatcher hair on William Hague the most we can aspire to aesthetically?

There are exceptions. Take Shepard Fairey's posters of Barack Obama: the line of the future president's shoulders swell upwards from left to right, like his poll ratings. He's staring up and over the viewer's shoulder, above the horizon, towards what we can only presume is the future. The colour scheme is red, white and blue. The left side of the face is red, the middle pale, the right blue. There's an implication – derived from the sunrise campaign logo he's wearing on his lapel – that the rosy side of Obama's face is bathed with the dawn towards which he's looking.

But you could interpret the colour scheme more simply. This is America. I'm going to win the red states with this half of my face, the blue ones with this half, and the swing states with the end of my nose. Just watch me. What made this such a great modern political poster, though, was the fact that it was not really modern and not really a political poster. It wasn't commissioned by the Obama campaign – although they got behind it when it went viral. It was the work of an artist, not an ad-man.

It was also a notably retro thing: a screenprint with a social-realist flavour. That chin-raised 1,000-yard stare has been a favourite with headscarved, broom-waving women and beefy-armed men ever since the first communist picked up a paintbrush.

Fairey's example points the way forward: ie, back. So how about, this election, the three main political parties raise their game? Each could show its commitment to the arts by allowing an actual artist to design its posters: no fiddling around with Photoshop, no attack posters, just something with oomph and originality. That would get my vote. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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