At first sight, this cartoon from the 1950 general election (found in The British General Election of 1950) is rather bizarre: why would people be covering up election posters when the police are passing by?
The answer lies in the Representation of the People Act 1948 and has rather striking modern echoes.
That act tidied up the rules around election expense controls, with a new, broader definition of the prohibition on campaign expenditure not authorised by an agent or candidate. When it went through Parliament it received little attention and seemed to be viewed as just a confirmation of the existing situation using slightly better wording than in the past. (Shades of the botched ‘tidying-up’ of election imprint rules in 2000 which required emergency legislation to untangle for the 2001 general election.)
But once on the statute book, these new election expense phrases triggered all sorts of concerns about whether national advertising campaigns – either by industry groups, especially those opposed to Labour’s nationalisation plans, or by political parties, would have to go on the constituency expense returns of individual candidates. The Labour Party even cancelled celebrations for its Jubilee in part for fear the costs would have had to count against its candidates in the 1950 general election and the expectation was that national billboard poster campaigns would have to count against the constituency limits of where those billboards were located.
As with poll cards, the initial caution in interpreting the law waned over the years and national campaigning which didn’t appear on any constituency expense return became the norm. So much the norm that, even after being limited in the 21st century, it is now causing the death of constituency expense limits.