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The election will not be televised

The internet will revolutionise the parties’ general election campaigns. For our leading politicians

For politicians and journalists, British general election campaigns are the equivalent of playing an album they have not heard for a few years. A prime minister names the big day and all of them discover that the old tunes are still there. They know instinctively how to dance to them.

Over recent decades, the music has started up each day at the morning press conferences. The Liberal Democrats offer their latest soundbites
at about 7am; they get an early hit on the media outlets, and the conscientious journalists drink some strong coffee. After the Labour and Conservative morning conferences, the leaders buzz around the country delivering speeches in key marginal seats. They also give interviews to an army of broadcasters and newspapers in which they more or less repeat what they have declared a thousand times before. The disciplined choreography is rarely punctuated by discordant or upbeat notes. I suppose John Major appearing in Luton on a soapbox in 1992 was odd, a little silly, but not a spectacular, game-changing moment. Neil Kinnock getting carried away at the Sheffield rally during the same election fuelled prejudices against him, but the wariness was already present. Since that campaign, elections have come and gone, with Labour predictably winning them - the reverse of the 1980s, when formulaic election campaigns were brief pauses during Margaret Thatcher's long reign.

But with the next election only months away, everything is about to change. The rhythms we have come to know so well are seemingly gone
for ever, like a distant waltz that is no longer played. Across the parties and within the mainstream media, there is a widespread assumption that the internet will transform the campaign in revolutionary ways. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the main parties' obsessive interest in the way Barack Obama used the internet to raise cash and engage more directly with voters to the increasingly influential political blogo­sphere, where news and comment are available around the clock.

Gordon Brown's close ally Ed Balls has told the Prime Minister to stop worrying so much about the newspapers and focus instead on what's online. Brown has followed this advice in part. He has shown a greater interest in the internet, not least with his infamous appearance on YouTube, in which he put the case for changes to the arrangements for MPs' expenses, although his awkward delivery gave him the air of a man trying out his new camcorder with an experimental monologue. He has also twittered about the National Health Service while on holiday.

The other part of Balls's advice has not been followed. Brown still reads the newspapers when he wakes up, which means by the time he's had his first cup of tea he is probably pretty miserable. Labour strategists are spending a lot of time working out how to engage with the voters on the internet and thus bypass the largely hostile conventional media.

Senior Conservative strategists expend much energy in the same quest, but they are also nervously ambivalent, wondering what this great leap into the campaign unknown will really mean. They are haunted by a fear that, for all their intense advance preparations, they are no longer in control of the agenda: instead, the internet will control the so-called political control freaks.

One of the Tories' media advisers tells me of a possible nightmarish sequence that could wreck their carefully laid plans. After an early-morning press conference in which David Cameron and George Osborne deliver their latest slogan, news reaches them that an obscure Conservative candidate has gone outrageously off-message with some spontaneous remarks at a local meeting.

In the past, the chances were that such a casually reckless intervention by a nonentity would go unreported. But in the era of mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, the Tory adviser suspects that film of the candidate delivering the calamitous words will be available almost immediately to every broadcaster in the land and become a major news story, derailing the party's agenda for the day, possibly for several.

The Conservatives have even more cause for worry after Alan Duncan's supposedly private comments about the poverty of MPs were posted on YouTube and the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (profiled on page 32) reminded voters in his rant against the NHS about the narrow reach of Cameron's modernising leadership. If the Conservatives have lost control in August, by far the quietest month of the political year, they could be in deeper trouble during an election.

Labour is fearful, too. Brown and Peter Mandelson were architects of the highly disciplined 1997 victory, even though they hardly spoke to each other at the time. They are used to operating in the old ways and will probably find it harder than the more youthful Tory leadership to adjust to the wildly unpredictable impact of YouTube and bloggers giving their round-the-clock analysis, more potent in some ways than 24-hour broadcast news, where the reporters are heavily constrained by strict rules of impartiality.

The next election will therefore feel unrecognisably different for political leaders, newspapers and broadcasters, the trio that, in their diverse ways, are used to planning the campaigns without having to take into account other external factors. In a curious way, although competing with each other noisily, they are all desperately trying to adapt to the impact of the internet. There are parallels between the decline in political parties and the crises facing conventional media outlets. They suffer similar questions of identity as they seek to extend their appeal beyond a declining core audience. They are troubled by the internet, but they are tentatively aware of its potential.

Yet, for all their difficulties, newspapers and magazines continue to play a distinctive role, in print and on the internet. Those writing for the mighty (and mightily subsidised) BBC website can offer only news and a very limited degree of interpretation. No broadcaster has the freedom to write the equivalent of the informed columns available on newspaper and magazine websites. We need informed comment as much as ever.

As usual, most of the influential newspapers will be on the right during the election campaign. The Times has wisely moved upmarket over the past year or so, aligning its news pages with its already impressive comment pages. But politically it opts for a narrow range; most of its columnists skate between ultra-Blairism, disdain for the current government and strong support for David Cameron and George Osborne. The Telegraph could move into the Times's old position of being a broadly centre-right paper of record with a wider range of voices that includes Mary Riddell, a well-informed columnist on the centre left. Nonetheless, the Telegraph is recognisably rooted on the right. They are joined in different ways by the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and quite a few of the other Sunday tabloids.

In contrast, the Guardian's political voice is far from clear. Recently, three of its columnists and a lengthy editorial screamed for Brown to go, without explaining what would follow and how. The newspaper's leader writers evidently have no feel or sympathy for Labour or the centre left, happily proclaiming recently that "Labour is toast", as if that were the end of the matter. They are more generous to the Cameron project, taking at face value claims that the party has modernised. I am reminded of an observation Harold Wilson's old friend Marcia Williams made to the Guardian's senior political columnist in the 1970s: "While the Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party, the non-Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party."

Similarly, some of the strongest - or at least loudest - voices in the world of political blogging are on the right. They vary in range and tone from the libertarian-right Guido Fawkes to the more traditional ConservativeHome. There are also the relentlessly Thatcherite economic pro­clamations on the Spectator's Coffee House forum, where the spending axe is wielded with unnerving relish. All are addictive; I read them several times a day. More importantly, so do BBC producers, frequently inviting the authors on to their outlets. The recently relaunched New Statesman website reads like a breath of fresh air as writers dare occasionally to put the case for a government policy and to challenge the notion that Cameron and his party are the crusading progressives in politics. But they are the exception, and I note that some of the contributors are hammered over this, attacked by other columnists and bloggers for being cowardly in their subservience, when they are being brave in challenging popular fashion.

Without much of a constituency in the media, Brown becomes more insecure, which is why, up until the summer break, he kept announcing daft initiatives in the neurotic search for a rare good headline. Cameron and the Conservatives will be under much more pressure from their supporters in the media to move rightwards, ­especially in relation to economic policy. I recall Tony Blair observing to me during his first term that the Conservatives' supporters in the media were not helpful to their party, as they always urged the leadership to move to the right. They are still doing so. Brown, like Blair, seeks to woo these mighty battalions, too, which is partly why his leadership has been of uncertain sound.

So, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The next election will be a roller-coaster ride during which no one will be entirely in control. At the same time, the news will be beamed largely through a Eurosceptic, small-state and anti-public-spending prism - a familiar challenge for a Conservative leader seeking support from voters whose political sympathies are not necessarily shifting rightwards, and for a Labour leader who needs to get a hearing from media that remain largely hostile to the centre left.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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