"Let's go with Labour" (1964). Photo: People's History Museum
Show Hide image

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 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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.