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Did Cowards Flinch? – Labour’s history through newspaper cartoons

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
A new book and exhibition tell the story of the Labour Party through newspaper cartoons. We look at individual cartoons and the period they represent
Issue 2023
Cover of Did Cowards Flinch?

Ever since its inception just over a hundred years ago, the Labour Party has always provided rich material for newspaper cartoonists of varying political hues.

The majority of papers in Britain are owned by the right – so it is unsurprising that the majority of cartoons in the new Did Cowards Flinch? exhibition are viciously anti-Labour and anti-socialist.

This was especially true in the early years of the party’s history, notes Alan Mumford, writer of Did Cowards Flinch?

“Part of the political history of the 1920s and 1930s is that the Tory press were able to mount big scare campaigns against Labour,” he says. “That’s lasted into recent times.”

This tendency has lessened with the advent of Tony Blair and New Labour, he adds, “though even with him, in 1997 there was still the view that underneath it all you were still going to get ­socialism red in tooth and claw”.

But Mumford notes there has also been a tradition of left wing newspaper cartoonists, starting with the Australian socialist Will Dyson who worked on the Daily Herald, the first Labour supporting newspaper.

Others included David Low, who worked for the right wing London Evening Standard.

“Low was given a contract that said he could draw any cartoon he wanted – though a number of his cartoons were withheld,” says Mumford.

These left wing cartoonists repeatedly depict a familiar theme – Labour leaders moving away from their roots and becoming wedded to the interests of the ruling class.

Mumford has been a Labour Party member for 50 years, and describes himself as looking to Tony Crosland’s vision of reformist socialism, which was very moderate at the time, but is now to the left of New Labour.

“I finished this book with a rather sad feeling,” he adds.

“Some of the things I continue to believe in – particularly the emphasis on equality – have almost disappeared as a forefront issue.

“I guess a lot of people would take the view – as the cartoonist Dave Brown does on the book’s front cover – that the red flag has gone from red, to pink, to not very pink… and then there’s Tony Blair.

“Broadly that would be my view of the Labour Party.”

Many look back to the spirit of Old Labour with nostalgia. Yet as this exhibition shows, Labour in government was repeatedly thrown into crisis as the logic of the nation state brought it into conflict with the workers whose interests it was meant to serve.

The exhibition of original cartoons is on at the Political Cartoon Gallery, 32 Store Street, London WC1E until Christmas.

Did Cowards Flinch? by Alan Mumford costs £19.99 from the Political Cartoon Society.
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