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British political cartoonists and General Elections

Do political cartoonists really make a difference when it comes to general elections? The former leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, who suffered greatly at the hands of cartoonists during his two election defeats in 1987 and 1992, certainly believed so. According to Kinnock, "political cartoonists are pre-eminent image makers and breakers and, zec lose it.jpgbecause of that, they wield real power." The legendary editor of the Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp also believed it. He thought that Phillip Zec's cartoon, depicting a wounded war-weary British soldier holding the laurels of peace on the front page of the Daily Mirror, played a major role in winning Labour the 1945 General Election. The cartoon itself was a blunt reminder of David Lloyd George's promise to build "a land fit for heroes" after the First World War. A promise he had not kept, and, by implication, nor would the Tories.

Lord Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, also believed that cartoons were a powerful weapon at election time. He was the first proprietor of a newspaper to give a cartoonist a contract which gave them complete freedom in the selection and treatment of their subject matter when he employed David Low on the Evening Standard in 1927. Up until then, cartoonists had been strictly expected to support the editorial line of their respective newspaper. Beaverbrook, a Tory Peer, generally honoured his agreement with Low, whose own politics were more in line with those on the Left. However,  at general elections Low's apparent freedoms were severely reined in by Beaverbrook. He was happy for Low to ridicule and attack the then Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin, of whom the maverick Tory Peer hated in any case. However, during an election period this was unacceptable as Low's cartoons may have actually influenced the electorate into voting against the Tories. During the 1929, 1931 and 1935 general elections, Low had numerous cartoons ridiculing the Tories refused publication. Other cartoons of his were also altered so as to appear as if the cartoons were attacking all three main parties rather than just the Conservatives. During the 1945 election, Low strangely disappeared for two weeks. The Evening Standard explained this by telling its readership that Low's 'health had compelled him to take a rest by the sea…' Daily Express journalist and later Labour MP, Tom Driberg, for one thought it 'suspicious'. It was remarkable, to say the least. Low was missing the first General Election in ten years; one which offered the electorate the chance to decide who would rebuild Britain after the war. Other left-wing cartoonists felt it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and as a result, threw themselves into it. Again, according to Hugh Cudlipp, Zec, for example, "worked overtime" during the 1945 election.

David Low, and to a lesser extent his successor at the Evening Standard, Vicky, was an exception to the rule. The vast majority of cartoonists were and still remain in sympathy with the political line their respective newspapers follow. Those who vehemently disagree with their paper's editorial line tend to not last very long. As Neil Kinnock has said, "whatever their personal political convictions, cartoonists have usually been flag carriers for the preferences and prejudices of the newspapers employing them." Whatever the politics of the paper, the vast majority of cartoonists today admit to being varying degrees left of centre. As a result, they generally prefer it from a professional perspective when the Tories are in power, even though most would prefer a Labour government. It is naturally easier, as a commentator of political events, to be against something rather than for it. Cartoonists react to events and are therefore reactive not proactive. Otherwise they would just become dull and repetitive propagandists for the cause, as Sir Osbert Lancaster, the legendary pocket cartoonist once suggested:

"It's okay when you're in opposition. When you have to be for something then they all fall flat on their faces. Even Low – those splendid attacks on Hitler, Mussolini and the Tories – then he occasionally had to do an idealistic picture of happy young workers marching into the dawn – like a soap ad."

There have only been a few cartoonists who have actively supported the Tories, such as Leslie Illingworth, Sidney Strube and most notably, Michael Cummings. The latter was once described by his editor at the Daily Express, Derek Jameson, as being 'slightly to the right of Attila the Hun'. The two big guns of current British cartooning, Steve Bell and Peter Brookes are well established enough to attack whomever they wish. Both claim to have taken a partisan approach towards Labour in the past, although Brookes admits to having had "one dalliance with the SDP and didn't vote for Miliband this time round." Yet, despite this he and Bell have never felt any qualms about attacking the Labour leadership even at election time. In comparison, Christian Adams describes himself as apolitical which is surprising for a political cartoonist. He says that despite the Daily Telegraph being a Tory newspaper, it enjoys his "plague on all your houses" approach. Adams believes following one political line makes you "boring and repetitive" in what you have to say. Dave Brown is another cartoonist who is also free to attack whomever he likes, but mainly due to The Independent claiming it is, well, independent supporting neither Labour, LibDem, Ukip or Tory. According to Brown, "I have no intention either to promote or refrain from criticising one party or another." However, even at the Independent, one has to work within the confines of appearing impartial. Peter Schrank found himself in hot water after 'going native' during the 1997 election, as he later recalled:

"I got quite excited about Tony Blair and New Labour. I remember waking up on Friday 8 May quite delirious with excitement and lack of sleep. The first rough I submitted to the Independent on Sunday was deemed ‘creepy’, i.e. too enthusiastic. After many other futile attempts, Stephen Fay, the then deputy editor suggested I should calm down and consider the possibility that this might not be the best thing that had ever happened. He was right, of course. Of all the politicians I’ve drawn I think I’ve disliked Tony Blair the most."

Many cartoonists generally have to take a more pragmatic, politically flexible approach to general elections depending on the politics of the paper they work for. Michael Cummings started off on Tribune before he started on the Daily Express, Bob Moran went from the Morning Star to the Daily Telegraph. Stanley Franklin during his long career also worked for two diametrically opposed newspapers, the Daily Mirror in the 1960s and the Sun in the 1970s and 1980s. Franklin had no trouble in changing sides so to speak and vilified both Labour and the Tories depending on who he was working for at the time. Steve Bright, like Franklin, has also worked for newspapers both on the left and right of the political divide, but, as with Adams, he dislikes all politicians and has no problem in following the editorial direction of the newspaper:

"There's no huge difference really. When I was with the Daily Record there was never any doubt about which direction I had to take back then. The Record had always been a staunch Socialist newspaper, and they were obviously backing Blair during the two elections I covered (1997 and 2001). I just ramped up the Tory-bashing in the run-up to both. This time, it was obviously the other way around, with a few others thrown in alongside hapless Ed. Since I generally loathe all politicians fairly equally as politicians, and love them all fairly equally as cartoon fodder, it's all good for me!"

Those cartoonists who are supportive of the newspaper they work for, naturally relish the opportunity to be partisan. The only big drawback is that it could be argued that they are only preaching to the converted, thereby diminishing any influence they may have on the result of an election. Steve Bell's predecessor at The Guardian, Les Gibbard, believed this to be true: "It's easy for us as we identify popular prejudices and push at an open door. Cabinet ministers may read The Guardian but not many Tory voters do." However, today, with the advent of social media, things are very different. Cartoons can now be regularly seen by a much wider audience with different and diverse political opinions. Christian Adams told me that he now gets comments about his cartoons from those on the Left who would never dream of picking up a copy of the Daily Telegraph. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and political online bloggers, cartoons copied and pasted (generally without copyright approval) from newspaper websites are now, as a consequence, seen by people of all political persuasions,

Cartoonists seem to thrive during general elections because it is a time when the public tend to focus far more attention on politics. Steve Bell told me that he loves elections, "it's a great time for the politically obsessed like me. I also get to see them (politicians) in the round and up close." Bell also states he "enjoy all the daft stuff between the cracks." I got a similar response from Christian Adams. It is the theatre of it all that pleases him most: "It's a time when politicians come out and are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. It's a great opportunity to be really cruel to them." Peter Schrank believes that general elections are a "bit like Punch and Judy on steroids. During an election the sometimes tedious cut and thrust and daily bitchiness of UK politics can become exciting and relevant." Whilst Scott Clissold compares it to Budget day but stretched out over four to five weeks. According to Ingram Pinn, "UK politicians are even more likely to make fools of themselves in the run up to an election and the usual crass advertising campaigns provide a lot of imagery to mock. MP's have to actually leave their cosy nests in Westminster and meet some of their stroppy constituents for a change which often leaves them reeling in panic."

For other cartoonists who are not overtly political, general elections are an opportunity for them to be so. MAC who tends to look on the social and humorous side of British life, finds that at election time his cartoons tend to focus far more on politics. Whilst Ingram Pinn at the Financial Times gets more of a chance to focus on British politics, as most of his cartoons have normally to be of an "international" nature rather than on the domestic political scene.

At election time, some cartoonists take the opportunity to be part of the media scrum that closely follows the party leaders around on their campaign tours. Apart from the party conferences, It is a great chance to see up close how the main propagandists behave and react. However, during the 2010 election, Steve Bell got closer than he could ever have imagined. At a motorway service station on the Tory campaign trail, he literally bumped into Tory leader David Cameron who confronted him and, according to the cartoonist, said:

"The condom, where does that come from? and I said it was to do with the smoothness of his complexion. He seemed genuinely interested, claiming to have enjoyed the one I'd drawn of him that day as a large sausage on a butcher's weighing machine. I said he wasnt supposed to, and ventured to ask what drugs he was on for this lunatic election marathon. He laughed and said he'd just bought a Patricia Cornwell novel to put himself to sleep on the bus."

Not all cartoonists like to be part of the media pack during an election. Dave Brown is one cartoonist who likes to keep his distance mainly for practical reasons. He feels that the drawback of being on the campaign trail, just like at party conferences, is that you can risk picking up an idea for your cartoon which the reader is unlikely to comprehend. This is primarily because, although being on the campaign may give the cartoonist plenty more material, the general public are at best likely to only see a few seconds of actual coverage and are unlikely to pick up on the reference to the story in the cartoon.

This last election, as in 1992, proved a difficult one for the cartoonists as the pollsters once again got it badly wrong. For weeks, cartoonists, influenced by the apparent dead heat in the polls between Labour and Tory, drew cartoons depicting a hung parliament after the election. Bob Moran, for one, believed the pollsters' predictions gave him limited options when it came to covering the election: "I had been looking forward to the election as it was to be my first since becoming a cartoonist. However, a boring campaign and a seemingly predictable outcome made the whole thing feel quite disappointing." However, the exit polls on election day changed all that. Again, according to Moran: "Everything changed when the shock result was announced. All the roughed out ideas based on coalition talks were screwed up, along with the careers of many of the people I'd been drawing for the last five years. So, in the end, it turned out to be a very exciting election to cover."

As Bob Moran has just touched upon, the most testing cartoon to draw during an election is actually the one drawn on polling day for the next day's newspaper. Having to predict a scenario for the morning after can be full of pitfalls at the best of times. Peter Brookes states you cannot afford to "take a punt" in case you get it badly wrong and end up with egg on your face. So that is probably why the day after the 2015 election with the Conservatives gaining a surprise majority in the House of Commons, no single cartoonist attempted to have predicted the result. Again, influenced by the pollsters, they all hedged their bets on a hung parliament. In the past, some cartoonists have been brave or foolish enough to risk getting gibbard close up.jpgClose up of Les Gibbard's original cartoon for the 1970 general election showing the head of Harold Wilson replaced with the head of Edward Heath following Heath’s unexpected victory.the right result. For example, on the day of the June 1970 general election, Les Gibbard, believing, as the polls suggested, a Labour win, did "take a punt" and drew a cartoon of Harold Wilson as a Jack-in-the-box popping out of the ballot box. When it was realised that Edward Heath had unexpectedly won, Gibbard was forced to quickly adapt the first cartoon, superimposing Edward Heath’s head on top of Wilson's. If the election seems to be a tight one, as we have just seen this past year, cartoonists, as I have said, play it safe. At the 2010 election, this approach paid dividends for Andy Davey in the Sun as he later recalled:

"I had drawn a non-committal cartoon for The Sun since we didn't know what the election result was going to be. So I drew the party leaders all exhausted after having beaten each other up in a Polling Station fight. As they lie there with black eyes, they all share the same thought bubble "Now what?". Nobody knew what to expect and the result was not clear even by Friday morning, so, luckily for me, it turned out to be pretty correct. Paddy Ashdown went on to the Today programme and said: "I don't normally advocate anyone to do this but I urge all readers to go out, buy themselves a copy of The Sun and turn to the cartoon on page 8 which summarises the situation perfectly". This was against the grain because of his chequered history with the paper ("Paddy Pantsdown" etc.). Thank you Paddy."

These days, political parties try their best to manage their parliamentary candidates, during an election campaign. They are warned not to say or do anything untoward which may in any way lessen their chances of winning. Cartoonists find this increasingly frustrating. With candidates, unable to freely speak their minds whilst watching their every word can make commentating on elections, not only difficult but increasingly dull and tedious too. According to Scott Clissold:

"Everything is so stage managed and controlled now during campaigns that it can be a Godsend when something interesting happens. Even if it's John Prescott punching the protester or the Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy 'bigot' incident. Most campaigns are pretty boring though which is probably how the politicians prefer them."

In comparison to previous campaigns, Peter Brookes also found the last election boring primarily because the candidates were "on message and only invited supporters were allowed at leaders' events." According to Brookes, "I enjoy all election campaigns, so I am enjoying this one... to an extent. It's easily the dullest (so far) that I've worked through, and I just wish something would HAPPEN. Somehow, the fuss generated by that idiot (Michael) Fallon isn't quite enough." Brookes did, however, find the election "much better later on, and of course the (election) night itself was anything but (boring)." Dave Brown thinks another reason elections have become duller is due to the almost total absence of advertising billboards. In the past, they could be seen all over the country plastered with party advertising. "They were great fun to parody" he says. Now, you get the odd mobile van advert, but the imagery is not around long enough to get into the public's conscientiousness. 

Because elections are being so effectively stage managed, journalists and cartoonists find they have to work that much harder. At the last election, there was so little to report on, that the Evening Standard even found space to run a story on Peter Brookes's depiction of Ed Balls and Ed Miliband as Wallace and Grommit. The paper alleged that Nick Park of Aardman Productions was becoming increasingly unhappy with Brookes's misuse of his characters. Park, a Labour supporter, felt his creation was being used to damage Ed Miliband's chances of becoming Prime Minister. When I spoke to Brookes, he told me someone who had read the story had rang up Aardman to see if it was true. It turned out not to be as, according to the cartoonist, Aardman Productions were "apparently perfectly happy about me continuing to do it."

Under the old electoral system, Prime Ministers would successfully, albeit for 1970, go to the country a year early if they thought there was a good chance of winning. This, according to Martin Rowson made previous elections boring and predictable as he recalls here:

"In the past its been mainly boring. 1987 foregone; 1992 depressing; 1997 foregone but exhilarating (fresh meat); 2001 boring; 2005 boring and depressing; 2010 foregone but embarrassing, with a nice surprise at the end. I liked 2010 because it gave me an opportunity to engage in a step change with the creation of Clegnocchio. At a deeper level, I think I can date my current feeling of furious ennui to last May, when we should have had an election: every parliament since 1979 has been four years, except Major & Brown, which dragged on cos they knew they'd lose, so the final year was excitingly grim and slapstick chaotic. This time, my inner satirist has been yearning for nine months for fresh meat (which every new govt is, even if same party), hence my fury at how boring it all is."

Martin's wish for "fresh meat" after an election resonates with many cartoonists. It offers them the refreshing challenge of working on new faces and characters thrown up either by a new incoming government or changes within an existing Cabinet. Many tire of having to continue drawing the same old faces year after year. Ingram pinn thinks "there is pleasure in seeing some of them booted out by the voters." For Steve Bell, the 2015 election result was a double whammy. Not only did Labour lose badly, but he has to continue depicting David Cameron as Prime Minister which appears to irk him. According to Bell:

"The election was a disaster. Now we've got Cameron for another five years. I'm so fed up with drawing that cunt!"


Of course it can also work the other way, as Scott Clissold explains; "it might be the last time you get to draw a bunch of politicians you really love drawing or have only just got a good handle on capturing." After the last election, Peter Brookes had mixed feelings about losing his most successful cartoon creation so far, when the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls lost his seat and Ed Miliband resigned as Labour leader. His depiction of them as Wallace and Gromit had been hugely successful, frequently mentioned in the House of Commons as well as receiving widespread coverage in the media. Brookes did say that despite losing Miliband and Balls, there had been limitations to what he could do with them as Wallace and Gromit without besmirching what, in essence, is a children's favourite. Most cartoonists were sad to see Ed Miliband go as he offered them such wonderful material with those big panda eyes and teeth that went on for ever. However, the bacon sandwich and the 'Ed stone' moments were themselves beyond parody. According to Bob Moran, "It's nice to have some new faces to draw but Ed Miliband had been my favourite subject and, from that point of view alone, I was sorry to see the back of him." In comparison, no one was sad to see Nick Clegg resign as Libdem leader after his party's disastrous showing at the election. Despite, as Dave Brown has said "everyone had developed their own version of Nick Clegg", it has been a constant struggle for all of them to get a good likeness of him. This most put down to the apparent blandness of his facial features.

So do political cartoonists really make a difference at election time? The answer is probably not. What they do do is to entertain us by visually illuminating the major election issues and incidents. They also add colour, vitriol and great humour to the proceedings. Without them, general elections would simply be far less fun and, undeniably, far less interesting.