The ‘first television election’ - 1955 or 1959?

In 1951, relatively few people had television sets so the audience for the Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) was comparatively small. By the 1955 general election, television had become more widespread.

Radio – Party Election Broadcasting

The British Broadcasting Company was created in 1922 and within two years of its creation it became involved in matters of high politics. John Reith, its Managing Director, was closely linked to the political leaders and used those connections to advance the cause of the BBC. Those links, however, also enabled him to encourage political leaders to broadcast to the nation.

Reith’s diaries show that some consideration was given to how political parties should use the medium of radio as early as the 1924 general election.

Rules and guidelines governing PEBs, post 1997 election

The current situation differs little from what it was in the 1990s. The broadcasters, in consultation with the political parties, decide on the allocation of broadcasts. Guidelines relating to the commercial sector (e.g. ITV, Channel 4) are contained in documents produced by OFCOM.

The documents indicate the lengths of the broadcasts available, e.g. ‘Parties may choose a length of 2'40", 3'40" or 4'40"’. It should be recalled, though, that in the 1950s, PEBs could be as long as 20 minutes!

Bibliography (select)

Allan, S., Atkinson, K. and Montgomery, M. (1995) ‘Time and the Politics of Nostalgia: An Analysis of the Conservative Party Election Broadcast “The Journey”’, Time and Society 4(3): 365–95.

Briggs, A. (1979) The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume IV.  Sound and Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butler, D. (1952) The British General Election of 1951. London: Macmillan.

Butler, D. (1955) The British General Election of 1955. London: Macmillan.

Film – Election broadcasts

It should not be forgotten that the political parties also made use of the new medium of film to spread their views.

In the 1930s, films made by the political parties were shown in cinemas and on screens that were transported in cinema vans. (See Cockett, 1992; Hollins, 1981)

Examples of these are available at:

John Grist and pebs in the 1950s

John Grist played an important part in the production of political television in Britain from the 1950s onwards. He was responsible for most of the party political and election broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s and later helped to bring about the televising of Parliament.