Object of the Month – July 2014

July 2014 - Yesterday’s Men (They failed before!)

Yesterday's Men (They Failed Before!)Alan Aldridge: artist, bohemian designer of album covers for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who and creator of an explicit poster to advertise the Andy Warhol film Chelsea Girls. Hardly the type of figure that a political party would normally approach to produce the central image for their election campaign. Not so Labour in 1970. Riding a wave of modernity that had begun in 1963 with Harold Wilson’s famous ‘White Heat’ speech to the Scarborough conference, in 1970 the party commissioned Aldridge to produce poster that would attack Edward Heath and his shadow cabinet as the yesterday’s men of politics. By association Labour would be cast as the bright young things of British politics.

Aldridge’s design was deeply controversial. He modelled Heath and his cabinet in plasticine. At the back is Reginald Maudling, Deputy Leader of the Conservatives. Quintin Hogg stands to is right. His raised finger (Churchill like in its oratorical pose) was a sideswipe at Hogg’s reputation as a great speaker. To the left of Maudling is Alec Douglas-Home, former Conservative Prime Minister who would serve as Foreign Secretary in Heath’s cabinet. To the right of Douglas-Home is Iain Macleod, then Shadow Chancellor and future Chancellor under Heath’s government until his death in July 1970. Enoch Powell looms behind Macleod. Unlike the other five men in the image he was no longer in the Shadow Cabinet, Heath has sacked him following the controversial Rivers of Blood Speech two years earlier. Despite Powell’s racist rhetoric he remained a popular figure, with many seeing him as Heath’s natural rival to the Conservative leadership. He appears as a spectre in the poster, hovering behind Heath. The message of Yesterday’s Men was clear, vote Heath get Powell.

The brilliance of Aldridge’s design is self-evident. It was poster that broke the rules of campaigning. Dark and irreverent nothing had been seen like it since the deep satire of Edwardian politics. It was, however, a poster before its time. People complained that it was too attacking, too personal. Thinking behind the image was a little confused. Labour advisor and spin-doctor David Kingsley claimed it was a positive message. Evidently, it was not. The liberal elites of the Labour leadership thought linking Powell with the Conservatives would push moderate voters towards Wilson and Labour. Perhaps it would, but while Powell was undoubtedly a divisive figure in 1970 he was amongst many voters a popular figure. The poster may well have galvanised a Conservative core.

Yesterday’s Men was meant to be followed by another image. The intention of the second poster was to show ‘Labour’s winning team’ with Heath and his cabinet modelled in plasticine but looking far more modern than Heath. The image never appeared, however. Wilson called the election early and the second part of the poser never appeared.

RubbishBy the end of the election Yesterday’s Men had gained a life of its own. Labour responded to a Conservative poster featuring a bin with ‘Labour’s broken promises’ by producing a leaflet with the Conservatives stuffed in a bin. When Wilson lost the election in 1970 Guardian cartoonist Leslie Gibbard produced a cartoon that showed Heath gleefully sticking up poster titled Yesterday’s Men but the image was of Wilson’s ejected cabinet. It was the BBC who the final word on Yesterday’s Men. The corporationbroadcast a notorious documentary about Wilson’s now shadow cabinet and gave it the same name as the poster. It remained a sad end to one of the most memorable pieces of political design produced in the twentieth century.