It is a somewhat overcast Friday morning in February 1974. On a podium in Berwick-upon-Tweed, candidates are called to hear the declaration of the new Member of Parliament for England’s northernmost constituency. To the untrained eye, one would be forgiven for thinking that the mutton chopped victor below is a Conservative, flanked by his Labour opponent on the right and a somewhat inexplicable Green Party candidate to his left.
As the BBC noted in a report in 2015, as incongruous as this looks today, the standardisation of political colours is a comparatively modern innovation. For all that we associate the Labour Party with red, the Conservatives with blue, and the Liberal Democrats with various shades of orange, a nationwide approach to the design of political parties has only really been in place since the 1980s.
Prior to this, it was common for Conservative candidates to use pink in Norwich, the Liberals periwinkle blue in the Cheshire and Carmarthenshire, and Labour yellow for candidates in the West Country. A viewer could be forgiven for assuming Tony Benn, icon of the Labour left, was a Liberal candidate whilst fighting for his Bristol seat during the same election.
As with so many elements of British politics, the reason for such a patchwork of colour schemes is a matter of conjecture, myth and debate. Naturally, a great deal of this comes down to the landed gentry, civil war, and Empire.
In Northumberland and Tyneside, Labour candidates wore green as a matter of course. Various reasons have been suggested for this, ranging from a tribute to the Chartist movement, to an association with the region’s Irish Catholic community. Another suggestion, put forward by Stephen Bird of Manchester’s People’s History Museum, suggests that this was actually down to the Durham miners — who disliked red because it was the horse racing colours used by the Dukes of Newcastle.
The Conservatives have also not been immune from such confusion. Although it was common during the Georgian period to refer to politics between the Blues (the Tories) and the Buffs (the Whigs), it wasn’t until 1949 that the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations voted formally adopt Blue as the official colour of the party. Even this was not taken forward by many local parties, who continued to use their traditional branding. In Norwich, election agents reported having double the printing expenses of other parts of the country, having leaflets produced in both orange and purple. Before the rise of the Labour Party and the wider socialist movement, the Conservatives (or Unionists) tended to put red at the forefront of their election branding, given its historic association with the Union Flag and the Crown.
Even the Liberal Democrats and the predecessor parties have used a kaleidoscope of branding efforts away from their current official “Gold” of Pantone 1375C (annoying for a post-war party that has often been strapped for cash, this dye is one of the most expensive to buy, necessitating various cheaper shades of yellow-orange being used by more enterprising candidates). An article by Graham Lippiatt in the Journal of Liberal History notes that at the Torrington by-election of 1958, the victorious candidate — Mark Bonham Carter (yes, a close relative of Helena) used purple and orange. Lippiatt cites this as being due to them being the colours of the Robartes family, who were the most prominent local backers of the parliamentarian cause during the English Civil War, when most of Devon and Cornwall supported the royalists.
Additionally, when William Gladstone stood in Greenwich in 1874, he likewise fought in blue, while his Conservative opponents (Greenwich, like many seats prior to the Representation of the People Act of 1918, elected two Members of Parliament), wore crimson. His running-mate — Baxter Langley — campaigned in green to show his affiliation with the local radical league and his support for Irish home rule. As Christopher Hill reminds us in his book, The World Turned Upside Down, sea green had also been the colour most commonly used by the levellers during the war of the three kingdoms.
The decline in these traditions can be set with the rise of colour television and the increasingly national-focused election campaigns being conducted by the main political parties. With television coverage showing party leaders and grandees campaigning across the country, standardised colour schemes helped to provide a sense of unity, as well as appealing to the influx of new, younger activists, who were naturally less beholden to these local quirks.
Such tendencies are not unique to the United Kingdom, of course. Green has historically been used by right-wing or populist movements in Canada, such as the Social Credit party or the later Reform party. The former, as with all social credit parties, have tended towards green-and-gold, owing to the heritage of the originator of social credit theory, C. H. Douglas, because those were the family colours.
Blue, meanwhile, is traditionally used by the centre and centre-left in Japan, in part due to the association of the colour red with nationalism, especially the wartime sun-ray ensign, now used by the Self-Defence Forces. Both the governing Liberal Democrats and the former right-wing insurgent Kibo no To, also use green.
The distinction of set party colours in the United States is even more recent. With red and blue both being used on the Stars and Stripes, it is hard to say that one was any more “patriotic” than the other. During the Civil War, blue tended to be more associated with the newly formed Republican party, given that it was the colour of most Union uniforms. However, neither they, nor the then Southern-dominated Democrats had an “official” colour.
Even with the rise of cable news, networks would routinely flip between blue and red for the Democratic and Republican parties from election to election and from channel to channel. Yellow would also be routinely tagged in as well. Today’s standardisation of Democratic blue and GOP red goes back less than two decades to the Presidential Election of 2000. Given the protracted nature of that year’s race, with the innumerable recounts and court cases in Florida gripping the nation, viewers and journalists alike became accustomed to seeing the electoral college map for the best part of two months as television coverage focused on the hanging chads and methodical inspections of ballot papers in Palm Beach. Although there was no official standardisation between the main media outlets, over the weeks, most broadcasters and newspapers moved towards a common theme and began to talk of “blue states” and “red states”. Within the space of a year, the terms had become common enough to be an inherent part of the lexicon, as seen in this article by David Brooks of the Atlantic.
Unless you have a very traditionally minded parliamentary candidate on your doorstep, you are unlikely to be confused by their party affiliation based on the colour of their rosettes and leaflets. Perhaps that is for the best. As Lippiatt concludes in his article, it may be an effective way of avoiding arguments. He recounts a debate in the 1950s between the two dominant Liberal women of the era, the left-leaning Lady Megan Lloyd George and her more traditional rival, Lady Violet Bonham Carter (yes, another relation). After going through a number of options for a new national colour for the party executive to use, Lady Megan finally lost patience and snapped that she didn’t care what colour was used, so long as it wasn’t violet.