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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad