A strange history of the party political broadcast

Party political broadcasts have been infiltrating living rooms since 1924, with some good, some hilarious and some downright weird results.

The party political broadcast has come a long way since its birth in 1924, although perhaps the political and media landscape hasn't changed that much.

The first ever PPBs in the UK were made for the radio for the first general election of that year, largely as a result of Lord Reith’s paternal instinct to educate and inform the nation via his new creation, the BBC.

The rules were, each party had up to 20 minutes and each broadcast would be entirely unedited. The three major party leaders, Herbert Asquith of the Liberal Party, Stanley Baldwin of the Conservative Party and Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald each made a speech over the airwaves to the exact time allocated.

Baldwin won the election and formed the first ever Labour government, but his victory was short-lived and he lost a vote of no confidence. Another election was called for the November  – and "fake news" is thought to have influenced the outcome. In another echo of our times, the Russians were believed to be behind it too.

The Conservatives then had a landslide victory over Labour and the result was said in part to be because of the "Zinoviev letter", which was published in the Daily Mail in the week running up to the election.

Supposedly written by Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev, it claimed to be a directive from the Communist International in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain, and said the election of a Labour government would lead to the radicalisation of the working class.

It was a forgery – but the damage was already done. Sound familiar? 

PPBs were made by the BBC for the first few decades under its public service remit and because, well, it was the country’s sole broadcaster. Being live, politicians were often cut off half way through a sentence, or else they ploughed through their points before their time was up, leaving flustered interviewers struggling to fill until the broadcast ended.

Clearly this system was never going to last, as the BBC saw the PBBs as at the very low end of their creative output and the politicians wanted the freedom to properly express themselves. A break was inevitable and the desire to take control too strong.

As PPBs proliferated not everybody thought they were a good thing. Grandees from all sides questioned their efficacy and saw them as self indulgent and a waste of money, but none were strong willed or brave enough to leave the airwaves open to the others.

Now of course, all the parties commission people outside of the main broadcasters to make their highly-professional broadcasts for them.

Hugh Hudson raised the bar for everybody with his effort for Neil Kinnock in 1987, but, while applauded as a film, it didn't do much in terms of votes.

Since then it has been a mixed bag, but here are some that I think stand out. Judge for yourself what they stand out for.

1.The Green Party’s slightly bizarre ‘boy band’ election broadcast for the 2015 general election cast Farage, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as members of an all male pop group.

2. Here are the Greens again with their "grown up" politics PPB from last year. A brilliant observation on the other parties’ behavior, but perhaps lacking a call to arms for the Greens.

3. This John Major PBB from 1992 is not as compelling a watch as Kinnock’s 1987 broadcast, but arguably it did the job, helping to usher John Major and the Conservatives to power that year.

4. PPBs went comedy noir in this rather funny Labour film from 2014. The party’s 1950s sci fi spoof mocked Nick Clegg as the ‘Un-credible Shrinking Man’.

5. The late, great Pete Postlethwaite stars in this decidedly odd and rather terrifying film from 1997. Labour won the ‘97 election by a landslide, ending its 18 years in opposition.

6. I’ll finish with this Not The Nine O’Clock News spoof from 1980. You could argue that it’s not too far removed from some of the PBBs made in all seriousness these days.

It’s just a shame I can’t find footage of the 1955 Tory party PPB, one of the first on television, in which Harold Macmillan was trying to show how personal saving had increased 30 fold under the Conservatives by comparing two money boxes.

Apparently, the props designer on set didn’t realise dimensions were cubed and made one money box that was 27,000 times bigger than the other and could barely fit it in the TV studio. 

John Quarrey is the founder and business director at Krow Communications.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free