Browse By

General election history unfolds at People’s History Museum

As Britain prepares to go to the polls, the team at People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester has been looking at the objects in its collection that give a fascinating insight into some of the unique aspects of general elections; from posters and pamphlets to rosettes and merchandise.

The galleries at the national museum of democracy vividly tell the story of British democracy. In the weeks that lead up to the general election a visit to PHM is a reminder of the stories of those who championed for change, and how long and hard fought the fight for the right to vote was. The museum is home to the country’s largest collection of campaign, political and election material and uses this to inspire visitors and to continue the quest for a fairer world for all.

Additional collection and archive objects relating to historic general elections will be on display throughout the museum from Thursday 6 June to Monday 30 September, with some of these forming part of a General Election Trail.

Polling stations
Polling stations are an instrumental part of any election, but they haven’t always been. Until 1872, and the introduction of the secret ballot, people would cast their vote orally and the choice would be recorded in a poll book. These were often rowdy occasions and on the galleries and in the collection at People’s History Museum you’ll see cartoons that depict such scenes. As the franchise grew, so too did calls for secrecy. The system that was adopted, of polling booths and standardised ballot papers marked with an X, came from Australia where it had been in place since the 1850s.

The Polling, Plate III William Hogarth, 1758. NMLH.1993.372.23
There have been very recent changes in the way that we vote with the introduction in 2022 of the need for photo ID. The system of voter ID has been in operation in Northern Ireland since 1985; with the requirement of photo ID added in 2003. Many believe that this has a disproportionate effect on those with lower income, disabled people and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.

General election leaflet, 1918
William Bowen was standing as a Labour candidate in Newport, South Wales in the 1918 general election. This small hand bill includes the offer of a lift to the polling station.

At the time, having a ride in a car was a real treat so this was a very enticing offer for voters! Despite this, Bowen lost.

General election card, 1923
This is a card for the Labour Party candidate for Bury in the 1923 general election. The election was held on 6 December and there would not be another December general election until 2019.

The fact that the polls close at 8.00pm is of interest, with the current hours of 7.00am to 10.00pm having been in place since 1970.

Ballot boxes
The secret ballot that became law under the Ballot Act of 1872 saw the introduction of ballot boxes. The very first was used in a by-election held in Pontefract that same year. At this time they were wooden boxes that were sealed with wax to ensure they had not been tampered with.

Throughout the galleries at PHM ballot boxes are used to share milestone moments in political history, starting with the Reform Act of 1867 that gave some men the vote for the first time, based upon a property qualification. Visitors can discover a story that brings things up to date with the introduction of voter ID in 2022.

Conservative rosette, 1922 general election (left)
Kier Hardie rosette, date unknown (right)

Candidates from the first political parties in Britain have worn rosettes. Initially they were in colours other than those typically linked with their parties today. Different colours were used in different areas, and the colours favoured by prominent local families often became synonymous with the candidates they endorsed, and this passed into local custom. The advancement of mass media, colour television and the growing importance of national, rather than local campaigning resulted in the major political parties having standardised colours.

Rosettes are still a phenomenon today, and visitors to the museum can follow a General Election Trail of rosettes in ‘PHM pink’ that pick out some of the key objects in the galleries telling the story of general elections (6 June to 30 September 2024).

Despite the rapid increase and prevalence of digital technology, posters still provide some of the most resonant images from general elections. When you visit the galleries of People’s History Museum you will see examples of posters used as part of campaigns from the early 1800s to the 1990s and from across the political spectrum.

There are many changes to observe; the movement from heavy typography to imagery and colour; the influence of the suffragettes on branding and design; and a clear change of direction from the 1980s when there becomes as much a focus upon criticism for the opposition, as there is upon a party’s own policies.