Five of the best political adverts: Labour isn’t working

This week we’re running a series featuring five of the most effective political adverts. Today it’s back to the 1970s and the then opposition Conservative Party:

In the summer of 1978 phone calls went out to members of Hendon Young Conservatives, asking them to turn up with their parents at a council car park for a secret project. Partly due to the short notice, less than a fifth of the hoped for 100 volunteers turned up, nearly causing the plans to be cancelled. Instead, some clever trick photography – melding together repeated images of those who did turn up standing in different locations – enabled the creation of the classic political poster: “Labour isn’t working”.

Its impact was dramatic, both for the power of the message and for the novelty – for such political billboard adverts were still new to British politics in the late 1970. Its impact was helped along by the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, denouncing it in Parliament. As so often with political adverts, a little bit of controversy made the message go a long way:

Labour Isn't Working poster

You can see all the posts in this series on our Political Ads page – and scroll to the bottom of that page for Luis Fishman’s classic. The stretch from 7 seconds in until 22 seconds in is fairly normal. But as for the rest…

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • These things only work well if they chime with something the public instinctively knows at the time. If the underlying issue of unemployment wasn’t a critical issue already then this advert would have been forgotten.

    Somehow I don’t think we will be seeing the ‘Tory Vat Bombshell’ or Nick’s ‘No more broken promises’ featured in this list. But I am 100% certain the Tories and Labour will be using them on the ground in leaflets at next years elections.

  • An incredibly creative poster, and its message is future-proof: simply search and replace! Labour -> Coalition.

    …though with the 500,000 extra unemployed that various bodies have estimated will result from the “Comprehensive Spending Review”, I’m not sure camera trickery will be required.

  • Come off it Marek – this advert came before the Tories deleted 1/3 of manufacturing in this country through a misguided monetarist policy…

    This may be bad, but it sure as hell isn’t as bad as the government that followed 1978, not that I’m a coalition apologist – but given the timing of the advert perhaps something a little less contemporary would be of benefit!

  • @Dale – it was to some degree the Tories but it was much more the high £ due to the N Sea Oil which started coming through at this time. It would have happened anyway, but a bit slower perhaps.

  • It’s a great campaign slogan and it worked (aided by a hamstrung Labour government of course). The problem is it came back to haunt the Tories as unemployment rocketed in the early Thatcher years. Labour though were unelectable at the time and so they got away with it.

    Another Tory gem that came back to haunt them (and I hope I’m not pre-empting a coming post) is the “You’ve Paid theTaxes so where are the …” insert nurses police etc. Again it was used against them as the numbers of public sector workers grew during the second Labour term.

    The key to all such advertising is simple, make sure you can not be made to look stupid (or worse dishonest) further down the line. We all know that the slogans and images used in the recent campaign would be avoided were the leadership to have a time machine.

  • The Militant Tendency did a parody: “When did the Tories ever work?” under a cartoon depicting cigar-chomping City boys and toffs lining up outside a bank with bags of loot.

    One of my favourites is from 1970. Labour’s “Yesterday’s Men”. Plastercine models of leading Tories stuffed into a wastepaper basket.

  • Its impact was helped along by the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, denouncing it in Parliament.

    Just shows how daft people can be.

    Interestingly enough, according to When the Lights Went Out, Mrs Thatcher took a lot of persuading that it was a good anti-Labour ad. She thought that people would see the word “Labour” and see it as a pro-Labour ad.

  • It was a good advert in precisely the same way that Phil Woolas’s campaign literature was good. It dishonestly won an election.

    LDV Bob, it was a critical issue in that unemployment had risen from 700,000 to 900,000 over the course of the parliament. The Conservative government deliberately increased it to 3.5million over the course of the next.

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