What was your response on April 18th to the news that Theresa May had called a General Election? Possibly similar to Brenda from Bristol? I’d taken a day’s leave and found out from a friend – it came as a shock to me. Almost straight away my mind turned to the Library’s wonderful collection of political ephemera and how to make sure we collected relevant material from this unexpected election.
The Welsh Political Ephemera Collection is one of my favourite archives. It comprises material from elections since 1837, fills 185 boxes and 2 volumes, and is unique amongst our political collections as it’s created by the Library as opposed to being created by an individual or organisation before being handed over to the Library for safe keeping.
The Library has collected political campaigning material since it was founded but with the establishment of the Welsh Political Archive we began proactively collecting from all parts of Wales. This involved recruiting volunteers in each constituency who would collect everything they had received during the campaign and send them to the Library and as the archivist responsible for the Welsh Political Archive maintaining that network of volunteers is my responsibility. I hadn’t found new volunteers to replace those who were no longer able to collect after the 2016 elections to the National Assembly for Wales as I wasn’t expecting another election so soon. The government had a working majority and Theresa May had said repeatedly that an election would only be a distraction from important negotiations with the EU so she would definitely not be going to the country early.
However, I’d found enough volunteers in the right constituencies within a couple of days following a number of phone calls, appeals on social media and through families of colleagues here at the National Library. In the weeks following the election we received material from each of the 40 constituencies.
The variety of material in this collection is one of the things that makes it so interesting. The main focus is material related to elections to the European Parliament, UK Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales but there are also files of campaign material from the devolution referenda in 1979, 1997 and 2011 and the AV referendum in 2011 as well as the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2016. There are files on themes as varied as the anti-apartheid campaigns, the Welsh language, nuclear weapons and the environment.
We can learn a lot about campaign methods, hot topics and social attitudes from the collection. The way that candidates try to appeal to different sections of society have changes over time; leaflets in the 1950s would commonly discuss food prices as an issue that would interest the housewife and many contained letters from candidates’ wives.
The collection can also tell us how keenly many elections were fought in different areas. In some constituencies in 2017, voters were lucky to receive one leaflet from each candidate while in others constituencies, voters were buried in campaign material. We received 58 unique leaflets which had been distributed in Ceredigion during the campaign, and 80 unique leaflets which were distributed in Cardiff Central.
With so much material arriving through our doors, the parties have become more and more creative to make sure we read it before it heads to the recycling bin. The Liberal Democrats have long been masters of the printed letter which looks like it’s been personally handwritten, although the Labour Party also made use of this type of material in 2017, while the Conservatives distributed a magazine in some areas entitled “You and Your Family”. With more campaigning happening on-line, we also take copies of party and candidates’ websites as well as their Twitter feeds.
I’m sure that in 50 years’ time historians will look back, perhaps with amazement or amusement at contemporary campaign methods, issues and possibly even the fashions! But thanks to our team of volunteers the original source material will be available for them to use. Four months on, the material telling the story of this unexpected election has been sorted, boxed and catalogued and will shortly be moved to its permanent home – even if politically things seem far from settled.
Assistant Archivist – Welsh Political Archive
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