"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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”