General Elections in Mass Observation

Diaries from 1945 in the Mass Observation collection at the University of Sussex.

Mass Observation was a large-scale project that began in 1937 and ran through to the 1950s, in the hope of creating what its founders called an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. A panel of volunteer writers and a number of observers were recruited, and aspects of ordinary life were then recorded in diaries or special questionnaires. The Mass Observation records are now held by the University of Sussex in a specially built archive centre, The Keep, and can be accessed by members of the public by appointment; some are also available online.

General Elections (as well as numerous by-elections) are among the topics about which the panel of diarists was asked to comment. There are, for instance, detailed replies about the 1945, 1950, 1951, and 1955 elections. Occasionally questionnaires also asked about newspaper reading habits and other factors influencing people’s views of how to vote. More broadly, there are detailed reports on subjects such as ‘How Britain Feels on Home Affairs’ (1949) and ‘The MP and His Constituency’ (1949).

For the 1955 General Election, Mass Observation had more than 200 responses to one series of questions such as: Were you interested in the election? Did you ‘listen specially to any radio broadcasts by political leaders’? Did you ‘listen’ specially to any TV programmes by political leaders? And what helped you to decide how to vote?

From the answers it seems as if Mass Observation panellists were more likely than the British population as a whole to have heard politicians on the radio than on TV. A significant portion was claiming not to have heard any politician on either medium. It’s a reminder that even in 1955 there was still very little political debate on air: election coverage was still concentrated, not on the campaign, but on the reporting of results when the polls closed.

Written by Professor David Hendy, University of Sussex

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