Earlier this week Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) made headlines and attracted a fair amount of criticism over a Brexit campaign poster. Farage, who is one of the most prominent supporters of Vote Leave outside of Conservatives Boris Johnson (former London mayor) and Michael Gove, appears in the poster seen above against the backdrop of a gigantic image of a long line of people. The people are migrants queuing up to enter Europe. The picture is reported to have been taken in Eastern Europe.
According to the poster, this sea of humanity is on Europe’s – and by default Britain’s – doorstep because of failed EU migration policy and because of the open door that the bloc has become for the circulation of people once they are within it. The verb “to break” appears twice in the poster: the title is “Breaking Point”, suggesting that things can no longer keep going as they have been, and the caption at the bottom explains that Britain must break free of the EU. This puts across the idea that Britain’s hands are tied and that, as such, the country cannot protect itself from the surging tide of outsiders. One could also add that the outsiders are “breaking” into Europe and the UK, since they aren’t exactly going through conventional channels to enter.
Criticism of Mr. Farage’s message has come from both Vote Remain and Vote Leave camps. Fellow Vote Leave supporters have said that Farage has come to the right conclusion in advocating for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the EU, but insist that he holds his view for all the wrong reasons and his expressing his view in the most inappropriate of ways. Reactions have generally ranged from sadness to shock and disgust. Some have said that the tone of the poster reminds society of some of the darker chapters of Europe’s pre-integration history.
So the poster has caused a stir and drawn attention to Farage’s point of view, which is basically what he set out to do so I suppose one could say good on him for setting and achieving a goal. Given the relative uproar the poster has created, it is interesting to point out that the idea isn’t 100% original; looking back to a well-known 20th century British election poster, it becomes clear that the UKIP leader did, in fact, draw inspiration from Margaret Thatcher, who in 1978 had the following poster created as part of what would turn out to be her successful campaign to unseat James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.
In the prototype seen here for Farage’s 2016 rendition, the words “Labour isn’t working” hover over a seemingly unending line of people queuing up to go to the unemployment office. The poster was a jab at the Labour government’s jobs policy, as unemployment then stood at around 6%, which was considered intolerably high. The title of the poster was, obviously, a play on words as it meant that the Labour Party’s strategy for creating jobs wasn’t panning out, and also that people looking for work (labour) were coming up empty on the job market, and so the country’s labour force wasn’t employed.
The 1979 poster was given the cold shoulder at first by Conservative Party brass, because It mentioned the Labour Party by name, some found it not attention-grabbing enough, and because some who viewed the image were slow in getting the word play. They eventually decided to use it and never regretted that choice. Labour decried the poster as simplifying complex issues and ridiculed the fact that many of the people appearing in it were themselves gainfully employed.
This is far from being the first time the now iconic poster has been copied, be it in the UK or even abroad. The continued relevance of the original image as seen in the fact that it has been copied again in 2016 shows that some pictures really are worth a thousand words. The stir caused by the 2016 version seams to suggest that some of the same dynamics are at play now on an EU wide level that were some 35 years ago in Britain before the coming together of Europe had been fast tracked, in that one political camp is calling out another for policies perceived as leading to the economic marginalisation of portions of the British people, and undue strain on the public purse.
The one last thing that only time will tell is whether this 2016 poster will overcome the anger and derision it has received thus far – like its predecessor before it on the jobs issue, it has been described as oversimplifying the EU immigration debate – and go on to be seen in hindsight as a landmark piece of political communication in a successful campaign. We will know shortly.
Just as a matter of reference, Farage’s poster hasn’t been the only one to draw sharp criticism during the Brexit campaign. The NGO Operation Black Vote (OBV) works on citizenship education with Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) citizens in the UK and encourages members of those community to fully make use of their democratic rights and to not dismiss politics as something that they cannot be a part of. Last month they made headlines when the poster below was released. It features a woman of Asian origin sitting opposite a white thug on a see-saw. It was criticised in many quarters as unnecessarily divisive. OBV officials retorted that they wanted to show that people from all walks of life had the same voice when an election was held, that those from other sub-sections of society were aware of that, and that BAME voters should be as well so that they could help tip the scales of public policy in their favour and not be locked out of decision making on issues that affect society as a whole, and them in particular.
As it happens, one of the most vocal critics of the OBV poster was – get this – Nigel Farage, who branded it sectarian, divisive and disgusting. It is somewhat poetic that many of the same adjectives are to be found in the criticism of Farage’s poster.
It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery so the Iron Lady would probably be happy about the UKIP poster for what it’s worth.
One thing that is certain is that public relations firm Saatchi and Saatchi is definitely happy because it was paid to design all 3 of these posters!