Voice and Vote Exhibition at the Houses of Parliament

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Me at the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the UK Parliament (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.

The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.

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The Voice and Votes exhibition in Westminster Hall makes good use of its limited space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.

Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.

I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.

Brighton’s Protest Stickers: Electoral Politics

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This is too big to strictly be a protest sticker, but it was too good to leave out! (Photo: Hannah Awcock, King’s Road, 26/03/17).

For the past year or so, I have been living in my home city of Brighton. As a place with a general anti-authoritarian vibe, the city has a pretty lively culture of radical street art and protest stickers. I have featured Brighton’s protest stickers on Turbulent London before, but now I’m living in the city again I’ve decided to do some more blog posts on the topic. Electoral politics often feature in protest stickers, mostly as the target of criticism. Occasionally, however, stickers are supportive of mainstream political parties, particularly Labour. Perhaps because Brighton regularly plays host to the Labour Party annual conference, quite a few of the protest stickers in the city relate to mainstream electoral politics. Below are some of the stickers that I’ve found on my various wanders around the city.

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Some stickers are critical of the political system as a whole. This is a quote from the well-known American activist and scholar, Angela Davis (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Prince Albert Street, 09/08/17).

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Brexit is just as controversial in Brighton as it is in the rest of the country. This sticker dates from before the referendum, and is encouraging people to think carefully about the implications of voting Leave (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 18/05/16 Queen’s Road).

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68.6% of Brightonians voted to remain in the European Union, and if this sticker is anything to go by, there are still people who are actively opposing Brexit (Photo: Hannah Awcock, West Street, 01/10/17).

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This sticker could be interpreted as supportive of Brexit, suggesting that Britain is making a timely exit from a burning building, escaping whilst it has the chance. I think it’s a clever use of imagery, reproducing a symbol that is so familiar to us in order to convey and political message (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Upper Gardner Street 09/05/16).

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The message of this sticker is much more explicit. I would guess that it was meant to be worn on clothing, but was placed somewhere on the street instead (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gardner Street, 26/03/17).

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Some stickers are related to specific political parties. This sticker uses the colour scheme and logo of the Conservative Party to criticise their policies (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Ship Street, 09/08/17).

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This sticker has superimposed the face of Theresa May onto the face of Margaret Thatcher, implying that no matter who leads the Conservative Party, their policies and attitudes remain unchanged (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/08/17, King’s Road).

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The snap election called by Theresa May in June this year inspired it’s own set of anti-Conservative protest stickers. This sticker is playing on the use of the word landslide to describe an overwhelming victory in an election (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 10/06/17, North Street).

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This sticker is referencing Theresa May’s favourite catchphrase during the election campaign, ‘Strong and Stable.’ It is drawing unfavourable comparisons between that phrase and May’s own behaviour (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 10/06/17, North Street).

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There are two universities in Brighton, as well as many schools and colleges, so there is a high number of students in the city. This sticker is appealing to them, although it doesn’t specifically mention the general election in June 2017 (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 10/06/17, North Street).

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Whilst protest stickers about the Conservative Party tend to be negative, those about the Labour Party are more likely to be supportive. This one is linking the Labour Party to support for the NHS (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 18/05/16, Queen’s Road).

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This sticker could be interpreted as critical of the current Labour Party leadership. Ed Miliband wasn’t especially popular when he was leading the party, but this sticker implies that even he did a better job than Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever the intent, the #Imissmiliband hashtag hasn’t caught on (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 24/12/16, London Road).

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Brighton is the only city in the country that has a Green MP. The colours of the sticker suggest that it is also supporting something else Brighton is well-known for, the city’s large LGBTQI+ community (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 04/02/17, Church Street).

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It is not just British electoral politics that is the subject of protest stickers in Brighton, American politics, particularly Donald Trump, is also a focus. This sticker is fairly self explanatory, I think (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 26/03/17, York Place).

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I particularly like this sticker, as I think it would really upset Trump if he ever saw it. He is an incredibly vain man, and I don’t think his vanity would cope well with the representation of him (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 24/03/17 Queen’s Road).

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I also think that this sticker would massively upset Trump, so it’s another favourite of mine! It was produced by Sonny Flynn (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 18/05/16, Queen’s Road).

London’s Protest Stickers: EU Referendum

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The EU Referendum was a significant event in Britain’s political life (Photo: BBC News).

The recent EU Referendum was arguably one of the biggest political events to happen in my lifetime. I haven’t written about it before because I felt there were enough opinions being voiced and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. In the weeks since, however, I have started to come to terms with the result, and on recent trips to London I have found something that I do know how to talk about- protest stickers. Like all big events and political topics (other recent ones include the 2015 General Election, the London housing crisis, and immigration), the EU Referendum left its mark on the streets of London in the form of protest stickers, which serve as constant reminders of the Brexit result.

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Some stickers were produced by the official remain campaign, like this one on the Euston Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 03/08/16).

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This sticker, in Malet Street, Bloomsbury, is also recognisable by the slogan and colour scheme of the official Remain campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 15/07/16).

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This sticker, advocating a Leave vote, was also quite common, but it doesn’t share an obvious connection with the Leave campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Russell Square, 13/04/16).

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This sticker is also urging a Leave vote. It refers to 1215, the year in which the Magna Carta was signed, declaring that the British have been a “free peoples” since then. It is a good example of how the Magna Carta is repeatedly brought into debates about freedom and liberty, having achieved symbolic status hundreds of years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Great Portland Street, 03/06/16).

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Many individual groups and organisations took sides during the EU Referendum campaign. The Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, a socialist campaign group, declared themselves for Remain. This sticker alludes to the employment rights enforced by EU law (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 15/07/16).

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This sticker was also produced by the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty. It reads “Lower Borders, Don’t Raise Them.” One of the big issues of the referendum was immigration (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 15/07/16).

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The RMT, a transport union, supported the Leave campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 03/06/16).

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The location of protest stickers can have a big influence on how it is interpreted (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 03/08/16).

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Protest stickers are ephemeral, and last for varying amounts of time. Sometimes, they are scratched away in a way that suggests there was a deliberate attempt to obscure the message of the sticker. This is what I think happened to this sticker on Borough High Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 15/07/16).

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There were lots of people who were not happy with the actions of Boris Johnson after the referendum. This blunt sticker expresses that disapproval in no uncertain terms (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Byng Place, 15/07/16).

You can see the locations of all of these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

Turbulent Londoners: Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m looking at Ellen Wilkinson, a radical politician who became the Minister for Education.


Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Cecily Wilkinson was an impressive woman. Rebellious and outspoken from a young age, she was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. As she aged, she either mellowed or suppressed her more radical side, rising through the Labour Party to become the Minister of Education in 1945, only the second woman to ever gain a place in the British cabinet.

Wilkinson was born on the 8th of October 1891 to a working-class family in Manchester. Her father encouraged her to read and learn, and she was academically accomplished. She got involved in politics young, joining the International Labour Party when she was 16. She also campaigned for the suffragist cause, handing out leaflets and putting up posters. She started teacher training college, but her unconventional teaching style was not appreciated and she left, deciding that teaching was not for her.

Teachings’ loss was politics’ gain. In 1910 Wilkinson won a scholarship to Manchester University, where she joined the Fabian Society and Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. She met many leaders of the radical left during this period, including the indefatigable Charlotte Despard. In her first year at university, she joined the executive committee of the University Socialist Federation, which was formed to unite socialist students across the country.

When she left university in 1913, Ellen got a job working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  She was also active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and strongly opposed the First World War. The Suffrage movement was divided by the war, so in 1915 Ellen became National Women’s Organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees (AUCE). She was the first woman they employed as an official. Here she fought for equal pay and rights for unskilled workers, which were often actively opposed by the better-off craft unions. Her time working for unions made her a skilled speaker and organiser.

A big demonstration in support of the International Labour Policy on Spain was held in Trafalgar Square. Ellen Wilkinson, Member of Parliament, addressing the huge meeting in Trafalgar Square in London, on July 11, 1937. (AP Photo)

Ellen Wilkinson addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square in 1937 (Source: flashbak.com)

As with many of her contemporaries, Ellen was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and in 1920 she was a founding member of the Communist Part of Great Britain. She also remained in the Labour Party, but it 1923 the Labour Party stopped allowing membership of both, and Ellen chose to stay with Labour, criticising the Communist Party’s dictatorial methods. By this point the AUCE had merged with another union to become the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), who sponsored Ellen to run for Parliament. After several failed attempts, she was elected the Labour MP for Middlesborough East in 1924, under a Conservative government. She was the only female Labour MP in the 1924 Parliament.

In Parliament Ellen fought for women’s rights, opposed imperialism, and was a vocal supporter of the May 1926 General Strike. She was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive in 1927, which gave her a say in Party policy. She campaigned for the voting age for men and women to be equalised, which was achieved in 1928. As the Great Depression struck Ellen continued to fight for worker’s rights, although she lost her Parliamentary seat in 1932.

She continued to campaign whilst out of office, and in 1935 she was elected as the MP for Jarrow, a small town in Tyneside which is known for the Jarrow March, which took place in 1936. Despite criticism, even from within the Labour Party, Ellen supported the marchers, and joined them for some stretches of the march. On the 4th of November she presented the marchers’ petition to Parliament, which contained 11,000 signatures. Although not immediately successful, it is thought that the march helped shaped future attitudes and policies towards unemployment.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

A statue in Jarrow commemorating the Jarrow March. As Wilkinson was the only woman permitted to join the march, I assume this is supposed to be her (Source: Hannah Awcock).

During the 1930s Ellen travelled Europe attempting to combat fascism, and was critical of the government’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war. She was also strongly opposed to appeasement as a method of dealing with Hitler. She supported the declaration of the Second World War in 1939, but disapproved of the way Chamberlain conducted the war. When Churchill took over the government, Ellen was put in charge of air raid shelters and civil defence. During the war she became less radical, and was accepted by the Labour Party mainstream.

In 1945, Ellen Wilkinson became only the third woman to be made a privy councillor. After Labour’s landslide election victory, Atlee made her the Minister for Education. She focused on implementing the 1944 Education Act, which provided universal free secondary education and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. She was criticised as the system of the 11+ exams, and grammar, technical, and modern schools was seen as elitist. She stuck by her guns, arguing that the Education Act was the only realistic way of achieving positive change. As well as this, she also increased the amount of university scholarships and part time adult education, both positive steps forward.

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson died in office on the 6th of February 1947. She had always suffered from bronchial asthma, and this killed her, exacerbated by heavy smoking, overwork and an overdose of medicine. Her death was declared accidental, but some still suspect that she committed suicide. Ellen was well known for her fiery hair and matching temperament, and even when her politics mellowed, her passion and conviction did not. She is particularly interesting in the light of the Labour Party’s shift to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader, and it will be interesting to see if he too moves towards the centre as his career progresses. Regardless, Ellen was an inspiring woman who carved her own political path in a world dominated by men, often in the face of heavy opposition. She fought hard for what she believed in, and proved that politicians can have principles.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Wilkinson

Harrison, Brian. “Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last updated 2004, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36902 (Not free to access)

Simkin, John. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUwilkinson.htm 

Stevenson, Graham. “Glossary of People: Ellen, Wilkinson,” marxists.org. No date, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/w/i.htm#wilkinson-ellen

London’s Protest Stickers: Mainstream Politics

Protest has a complicated relationship with mainstream politics. Governments and political parties are frequently the targets of social movements and demonstrations, such as the recent Anti-government protests after the 2015 General Election. Political parties and politicians often appear as the subject of protests stickers. In London, the frequency of these kind of stickers increased in the weeks before the recent General Election. Generally, the streets of London did not agree with Britain’s voters.

There was a decidedly anti-Conservative tone of many of the protest stickers that appeared in the weeks before the 2015 General Election (Tottenham Court Road,  17/04/15).

There was a decidedly anti-Conservative tone of many of the protest stickers that appeared in the weeks before the 2015 General Election (Tottenham Court Road, 17/04/15).

UKIP also received a certain amount of criticism on the streets of London, although it then went on to win 12.6% of the vote (Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, 17/04/15).

UKIP also received a certain amount of criticism on the streets of London, although it then went on to win 12.6% of the vote (Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, 17/04/15).

This example, more of a poster than a sticker really, directly referenced the election (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15)

This example, more of a poster than a sticker really, directly referenced the election (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15).

These stickers criticized the electoral system as a whole rather than specific politic parties. They had been removed the next day (28/04/15).

These stickers criticized the electoral system as a whole rather than specific politic parties. They had been removed the next day (Borough High Street, 28/04/15).

A sticker calling for Muslims not to vote. Some argue that voting is polytheism, because no one has the right to make laws except God. The sticker has an official appearance, looking more like a warning sign than a protest sticker (Euston Station, 12/05/15).

A sticker calling for Muslims not to vote. Some argue that voting is polytheism, because no one has the right to make laws except God. The sticker has an official appearance, looking more like a warning sign than a protest sticker (Euston Station, 12/05/15).

This sticker, by the Anarchist Federation, is also calling for people not to vote, although I'm sure the motive was very different. This sticker was located on a bin, which might have been an attempt to equate voting with rubbish. Or it might have been a coincidence (Camden High Street, 20/05/15).

This sticker, by the Anarchist Federation, is also calling for people not to vote, although I’m sure the motive was very different. This sticker was located on a bin, which might have been an attempt to equate voting with rubbish. Or it might have been a coincidence (Camden High Street, 20/05/15).

The writing on this sticker has been removed, but the image of David Cameron with vampiric teeth gets the message across I think! (Borough High Street, 28/04/15).

The writing on this sticker has been removed, but the image of David Cameron with vampiric teeth gets the message across I think! (Borough High Street, 28/04/15).

This sticker, along with the next one, rank amongst my favourite stickers come across so far in London. Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in UK cinemas on the 23rd of April, so the reference is topical as well as humorous. (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15).

This sticker, along with the next one, rank amongst my favourite stickers that I’ve come across so far in London. Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in UK cinemas on the 23rd of April, so the reference is topical as well as humorous (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15).

Not to be left out, Nigel Farage also gets the Avengers treatment (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15).

Not to be left out, Nigel Farage also gets the Avengers treatment (New Oxford Street, Holborn, 03/05/15).

This sticker also criticises Nigel Farage's party, using wordplay to warn of the dangers of complacency (King's Cross, 05/05/15).

This sticker also criticises Nigel Farage’s party, using wordplay to warn of the dangers of complacency (King’s Cross, 05/05/15).

This sticker is another criticism of UKIP, but it has been grafittied, accusing the person who made the sticker of bigotry (Regent's Canal tow path, Camden, 20/05/15).

This sticker is another criticism of UKIP, but it has been grafittied, accusing the person who made the sticker of bigotry (Regent’s Canal tow path, Camden, 20/05/15).

Many people are disillusioned with the current political system, and feel like the current political parties do not offer real choice. They all argue that there is a need for continued austerity, for example. This sticker is referring to that sense of disillusionment (Euston Road, 06/05/15).

Many people are disillusioned with the political system, and feel like the current political parties do not offer real choice. They all argue that there is a need for continued austerity, for example. This sticker is referring to that sense of disillusionment (Euston Road, 06/05/15).

This sticker refers to an entirely different vote, although the issue of Scottish independence was still an important one during the election campaign. This sticker is from the Yes Campaign, that argued for Scottish independence during the referendum in 2014 (Malet Street, Bloomsbury, 17/04/15).

This sticker refers to an entirely different vote, although the issue of Scottish independence was still an important one during the election campaign. This sticker is from the Yes Campaign, that argued for Scottish independence during the referendum in 2014 (Malet Street, Bloomsbury, 17/04/15).