From the moment it came to power in 1945, the Attlee government embarked on a series of costly, high-powered propaganda campaigns, modelled on those devised by the Ministry Of Information during the war. Such campaigns were acceptable during the war since the government had been a national coalition, which sank party differences in the interests of national unity and defeating Hitler. After the war, the country returned to party politics and the use of such propaganda was considered a wrongful use of public funds. But the Attlee government’s huge Commons majority meant it could enact any legislation it pleased and the propaganda was conceived in private by Cabinet committees chaired by Herbert Morrison and known to few outside Whitehall.
One of the most dramatic campaigns had the theme ‘We work or want’. The campaign failed as it implied that production was low because workers were not working hard enough. In reality low production was the result of a number of factors including lack of raw materials, old and worn out machine tools and power cuts. Some industries also had manpower shortages .
The Labour government attempted to educate the workforce in supply side economic theory with poster campaigns illustrating that wages could only rise if production rose too. At the end of the campaign few people surveyed could recall seeing any of the posters and even fewer could recall any of the slogans. Even the notoriously taciturn Clement Attlee was heard to remark, ‘There’s something wrong with our publicity.’
The government’s new campaign was unprecedented in scale and national coverage. By the end of 1947, 13,000 poster sites – one in every five sites in Britain – carried a Government advertisement telling people We Work or We Want. A further 90,000 posters were sent to places of work. Advertisement space was booked in all national daily and Sunday newspapers, in provincial morning, evening and weekly papers and in magazines and periodicals carrying the same message – an astonishing ten per cent of the advertising space in British publications. More than 30 films were made, each focussing on an aspect of the economic situation. More government films were commercially distributed than ever before and more than 50,000 non-theatrical screenings were held in factories and other places of work. Public meetings at which ministers and official COI lecturers addressed audiences on production, exports, inflation and similar subjects went up from 54 in October 1945 to an astounding 1,521 in September 1947. No fewer than 9,000 talks were delivered in works canteens on the economy.
The Central Office of Information printed tens of thousands of copies of a booklet intended for popular consumption under the stirring title The Battle for Output, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit, and distributed them to bookstalls throughout the country. Thousands of copies of another booklet, We live by exports, written for industrial workers, were dispatched to larger companies, along with wall charts illustrating targets for production.
This massive effort cost in total some £400,000 (around £12 million in today’s money). But its results were little better than before. The press reaction was very mixed. The News Chronicle said in its leader column, ‘We wanted them to rouse the nation, not to bay the moon in anguish.’
When the survey results started coming in, it was clear that the new campaign had fared no better than the old when it came to influencing or educating people despite the saturation coverage. Fewer than half of those who had noticed the first press advertisements had read even one of them. Fewer than one in ten had read all four ads. In any case, what was someone who read them supposed to do?