"Let's go with Labour" (1964). Photo: People's History Museum
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The People’s History Museum in Manchester is the most forthright museum I’ve ever visited

A new exhibition, Election! Britain Votes, at the People’s History Museum in Manchester explores the nature of democracy in a candid and sincere fashion that is far removed from the complacency we often get when museums try and do politics.

Election! Britain Votes
The People's History Museum, Manchester

I’m only halfway into Election! Britain Votes at the People’s History Museum when I find myself disagreeing with Tony Benn.

In a 2001 speech to the Commons, Benn explained the impetus behind the plaque to Emily Wilding Davison he had placed in the parliamentary crypt: “If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.” He may have been correct about Parliament, but he was almost certainly wrong about museums.

Called the National Museum of Labour History until 2001, the People’s History Museum holds items relating to the labour movement, from the first campaigns for men’s suffrage to the anti-war marches of 2003 and the struggle for LGBT rights. It is the most forthright museum I’ve visited. In the first gallery, a caricature of an emancipated slave is accompanied by a caption which begins not with a mealy-mouthed “this controversial image...” or “illustrating attitudes at the time...”, but simply “this is a racist picture”.

“Socialism doesn't pay... you do!” (1951). Photo: People's History Museum

The Election! Britain Votes exhibition is similarly straightforward. Split into two parts, half of it is a history of elections told via objects. Here, posters and newspaper clippings sit alongside rarer memorabilia (Michael Foot’s glasses are worth the trip alone). Arranged in order from 1900 to 2010, certain electioneering trends become clear, not least the ongoing British fondness for political personality cults. The number of posters that try to minimise, or ignore entirely, the name of their party would be funny if it wasn’t so awkward. Statistics for each year show the breakdown of seats and the number of male to female MPs. There are even themed games: when I visit, two Mancunians are playing a game of MP “Guess Who?” – with questions that are about as complimentary as you’d expect.

“Confirm your confidence in Churchill!” (1950). Photo: People’s History Museum

Exciting and well thought out as this all is, however, it’s the other half of the exhibition that grabs attention. Here visitors encounter an introduction to elections which refuses to be coy: the captions at the start inform the public that it is “pro-voting and pro-democracy”, with a paper cut-out of anti-voting Russell Brand illustrating a firm takedown of his ideas.

The job of evidence is given to a glass cabinet of 1997 postcards showing neo-Nazis and other political extremists, captioned “Use your vote, you know he’ll use his”, and pie charts illustrating the percentage of people in each age group who vote – a reminder to younger visitors that political parties only bother to court those who turn up to the polls. Like, I suspect, most people, I’m not used to museums being so unapologetic, and I briefly wonder if they could get away with this in London.

“New Labour gives you war on demand” (2005). Photo: People's History Museum

From a curatorial perspective, Exhibition! Britain Votes is a triumph. A display about marginal and bellweather seats is, I’m delighted to find, accompanied by an iPad showing New Statesman sister site May2015.com. For the less mature visitor, a white board with magnets invites you to design posters featuring Ed Milliband, Nigel Farage, David Cameron and/or Nick Clegg, with both suitable and wildly unsuitable iconography available. There are free family packs in jute bags by the door and the language is clear and forthright – a quality not to be underestimated, either in terms of importance or rarity.

Of course, there’s a certain rhetoric at work here (after the panel that tells us the UK is a democracy, unlike certain oppressive regimes overseas, one could hardly miss it). Yet the exhibition is far from uncritical. One of the most prominent displays, headed “But how representative is it?”, shows the breakdown of politicians by race, gender and schooling as opposed to the make-up of the general population, undermining any complacency about Britain’s formally democratic structure.

Already well deployed.

It’s when I reach an iPad with the voter registration page open for visitors to join the electoral roll, however, that I fully understand how radical the exhibition is. For a straightforward decision – of course, why would an exhibition all about voting not give visitors the means to vote, if it can? – it is also jarringly unexpected. Often going to a museum can feel like you are leaving the outside world behind for a few hours, but here there is a direct link to visitors’ real lives and real rights. The iPad achieves something pamphlets never could; making this not just an exhibition about the history of voting, or an urging to participate, but a direct facilitator of democracy.

It suddenly becomes clear that, really, all museums are like this: not just places to remember what has happened, but where new actions take place. Museums are where ideas are introduced, or challenged. From the colonial spoils of the British Museum to the ludicrously gender-skewed art galleries across the country, they propagate the stories they tell, sending school children home with hopelessly biased ideas about British rule or the paucity of women painters. Election! Britain Votes could shed them of their complacency.

Tony Benn was wrong to make a distinction – museums are all workshops. The People’s History Museum just knows it.

Election! Britain Votes will run at the People's History Museum until 28 June. An item for 2014 will be added after the election in May.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.