What happens to politics after the Sun dies?

Whatever happened to “It’s the Sun wot won it”? Politicians of today need to forge a new relationshi

The night before the general election, a cry went up across blogs and Twitter when the Sun's front page was revealed: an illustration of David Cameron, in the style of the iconic blue-and-red image of Barack Obama, bearing the tagline: "Our only hope".

Within minutes, parodies started circulating and blogs started publishing them. By the next morning more than 50 new versions had been circulated and thousands of people had poked fun at the paper. Even the Tories admitted it was embarrassing. There was much contempt, naturally -- there always has been on the left for the tabloid -- but there was also dismissal of the Sun's previously feared influence.

This year's election was in fact notable for how little impact the tabloids had; the TV debates sucked up all the attention. But this isn't just a one-off. Tabloids have been declining for years and it's about time our political system started thinking beyond that world.

The Sun newspaper has always been at the forefront of this brash claim to political influence, most notably with its "It's the Sun wot won it" headline following Neil Kinnock's defeat in 1992. More recently its political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, was reported as saying: "It is my job to see that Cameron f***ing well gets into Downing Street," to a group of journalists, according to Rupert Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff.

But a closer reading of the polls illustrates how difficult Newton Dunn's job actually was. The Sun decided to back the Tories in September 2009 when they were 12-16 points ahead in the polls. Six months later that lead had halved.

There were several other examples. In November 2009 the Sun reported that a handwritten letter from Gordon Brown to Jacqui Janes, the grieving mother of a British soldier slain in Afghanistan, was riddled with spelling errors. It hammered the PM as not caring enough for our troops.

And yet a little-reported poll a week later found that 65 per cent of voters thought the controversy was over the top and that the Sun had crossed a line. Astonishingly, roughly half said they were more likely to defend Brown because of the unfair coverage, with just 17 per cent inclined the other way.

"Bigotgate"

Gordon Brown's gaffe in calling a woman from Rochdale a "bigot" was also widely reported and was seen by many commentators as the end of the Brown campaign. But a poll later found that over 50 per cent of people agreed it had been a storm in a teacup, and that Brown was "simply trying to let off steam in private". Labour went on to retain its seat in Rochdale.

The press attacks in the same vein on Nick Clegg, too, faltered. The Daily Mail went as far as declaring that Clegg had made a "Nazi slur on Britain" and repeatedly referred to his foreign heritage. A poll later found most voters did not pay much attention to these stories; in fact, 15 per cent said it made them more likely to vote Liberal Democrat, while only 4 per cent said it made them less likely.

A week before the election, the Sunday Times pointed out the futility of tabloid rage at the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg's personal ratings had fallen by a negligible 2 points after weeks of sustained criticism in the press, and he was still almost as popular as Winston Churchill.

Ben Page, chief executive of the polling company Ipsos MORI, says measuring readers' voting intentions after newspaper endorsements offers an indication of their influence.

"In 2001, 57 per cent of Daily Mail readers said they intended to vote Tory while 22 per cent promised to vote Labour and 14 per cent Lib Dem. In 1997, despite the Mail calling for a Conservative victory, 29 per cent of its readers said they expected to vote Labour.

"The Sun's Labour support over three elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, did not shift as many votes away from the Tories as one might think, with 30 per cent, 29 per cent and 33 per cent of Sun readers saying they would vote Conservative."

Page says the press is not as powerful an agent as politicians seem to believe -- except in very close elections, and then only in marginal seats.

Andrew Hawkins of ComRes thinks the press attacks were ineffectual for two reasons. "First, people read the media that appeal to their existing political dispositions -- so the scope for influencing them is limited, as the media are preaching to the converted.

"Second, Labour and Conservative voters were solidly more reliable than Lib Dem supporters in terms of certainty to vote and settled choice of party throughout the campaign; they were simply less susceptible to negative messaging."

Weathervane, not the wind

It's highly unlikely the Sun can claim victory after an election ever again: its circulation has fallen 35 per cent since its peak of 4.7 million in the mid-Nineties.

A paper by John Curtice at Oxford University found that even in the late Eighties and mid-Nineties, "the net movement of voting preferences amongst the whole electorate was very similar to what happened amongst those who did not read a newspaper at all . . . When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all."

He specifically looked at the impact of the Sun on Labour's 1997 victory and found that "the pattern of vote-switching during the campaign among readers of the Sun or any other ex-Tory newspaper proved to be much like that of those who did not read a newspaper at all."

As Peter Kellner of YouGov said recently, "Although the Sun newspaper is a great weathervane, it doesn't decide the direction of the wind."

New directions

New Labour's love affair with the tabloid press was an important part of Tony Blair's strategy to sanitise the public perception of the party. But if endorsements by the newspapers are no longer needed, what fills that gap?

During the 2008 US elections, Barack Obama's campaign skilfully used a mixture of social media and text-messaging to reach out to new voters. Its most powerful weapon, however, was a database of more than 13 million email addresses -- reaching voters in every corner of the country almost constantly.

That database not only micro-targeted subscribers based on their previous responses, but also offered them carefully honed messages that they were encouraged to take to their neighbours and colleagues.

Their success, according to the American political journalist Marc Ambinder, came from using "tried and tested old media marketing techniques and merg[ing] them with technology".

There is little doubt that the future of British politics lies in that direction. Campaign groups such as 38 Degrees use only emails to inform and mobilise thousands of people; political flashmobs and demonstrations are organised via Facebook and Twitter almost every day; blogs such as Liberal Conspiracy now get more than 100,000 readers a month. A new world of political campaigning outside of Westminster rules is springing up.

The British commentator and blogger Anthony Painter says political parties here need to create new spaces for political dialogue and engagement if they want to reach voters directly via the web. "New media invert the flow of communication between elites and us all," he says. "If elites do not relinquish control, then they will be ignored."

Politicians will have to start joining conversations that are already happening, he says, on websites such as Mumsnet and other spaces. And that has an impact: "Retail politics will increasingly be replaced by conversational politics."

Tech fixes

While that conversation is taking place all over the web -- especially on the behemoths Facebook and Twitter -- the trick for politicos is to harness that technology to help them.

After all, what is the point of simply engaging in idle chatter?

To a certain extent, both Labour and the Conservatives made forays into leveraging technology for political gain. The Conservatives launched a website that allowed activists to self-organise and raise funds for candidates they liked.

Labour concentrated on honing its sophisticated "Contact Creator" database of supporters, which was then used to launch a "virtual phonebank" whereby individual supporters could download lists of names from the website and contact waverers to urge them to vote Labour.

However, there are some people who think that the new political climate could increase the power of the press. Andrew Hawkins of ComRes says: "There are numerous issues over which Lib Dems and Tories have the potential to fall out. The media will be looking for ways to drive wedges between them which will inevitably increase their influence."

As the Telegraph's revelations about David Laws's personal life and financial arrangements show, there's life in the old dog yet. But the press circulation trend is still downward, while social media continue to grow phenomenally.

The challenge now is for our politics and politicians to find a way of adjusting to the new reality.

Sunny Hundal is the editor of Liberal Conspiracy and tweets here.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle