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29 January 2018updated 17 Jan 2024 6:10am

Please stop treating everything in politics as an extension of the Westminster soap opera

There’s a whole world out there.

By Jonn Elledge

To a man with a hammer, the old cliché runs, everything looks like a nail – and journalists, with our carefully delineated beats, are equipped with more hammers than most.

I very much don’t exclude myself from this. Lord knows how many questions (“What would you like for Christmas, Jonn?”) I have in my time answered with entirely inappropriate responses about the need for green belt reform and a new light rail network for Leeds. So I’m no doubt being massively hypocritical when I lodge the following complaint, but what the hell, I’m going to do it anyway:

The lobby’s inability to interpret any story except in terms of what it says about the Westminster horse-race is winding me right up. Worse, it’s screwing up the country.

It was a tweet about Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis’ plan to run for the new South Yorkshire metro mayoralty that triggered this particular rant. With apologies to the editor of Politics Home, who’s very far from alone in this, it was this one:

Several things about this got my back up slightly. One is “exit door” – the implication that leaving Westminster politics amounts to leaving politics altogether. Another was “moderate”, a word that’s factually accurate but which carries the clear implication that Jarvis’s motivation for legging it, as he so obviously is, must be because he’s clashed with the left-wing Labour party leadership.

Thing is, though, that’s not what’s happening. Jarvis is no Corbynista, no – but he’s long been an advocate of regional devolution, is a reasonably big name, and as a Barnsley MP he’s an obvious candidate for the metro mayor job.

More to the point, he’s not heading for the exit door at all. As it turns out, if elected – and South Yorkshire being what it is, if he’s selected as the Labour candidate, he is all but certain to be elected – he intends to stay in Westminster, too. His motive is to pressure the government into turning the Sheffield/South Yorkshire deal into the Yorkshire-wide one that the majority of the region’s councils mostly back.

Schofield’s tweet missed all this: the suggestion was this job was an escape route, nothing more. In his defence, if you’re trying to drum up social media enthusiasm for a story, as he clearly was, that’s probably the way of selling it – but the lobby’s tendency to see everything through the prism of Westminster ends up misleading the readers, nonetheless.

The results can be far worse: consider the biggest, most depressing example which here, as so often, is Brexit. Much of the media treated the referendum campaign not as a debate about our future foreign policy, or a battle for Britain’s soul, but simply as the latest instalment in the Westminster soap opera. What would Boris’s betrayal mean for his leadership ambitions? What would his distinctly lukewarm support for Remain do to Corbyn’s chances of being defenestrated? Who’s up? Who’s down?

Remarkably little of the coverage focused on what leaving the EU would actually mean for businesses or for the economy, for the very good reason that such questions are both complicated and dull. Instead we got a lot of nonsense about what it meant for assorted self-important blowhards in ill-fitting suits. This is all very well if you want to sell newspapers, but it’s not so much use if you actually want people to be informed when they go into the voting booth.

I don’t know what the solution is here. I’ve been doing this long enough to know all too well that it’s much easier to get readers interested in stories about politicians getting a kicking than in those concerned with wonkish policy stuff.

But I do feel that getting this wrong can mess things up. In June 2016, this country voted Leave without ever having had a serious discussion of what that would mean or how it might work. If we’d done that, we may very well have voted out anyway – but we’d probably have been less surprised by everything that had happened since.

As to the lobby’s shared belief that everything that happens outside SW1 is essentially irrelevant, my sense is that it’s contributed to our horrifically divided economy: not every problem can be seen, let alone dealt with, from Westminster. At the very least, this myopic focus on a tiny corner of central London increases the risk that the media will miss the real story of how things are going out there in the rest of the country.

At any rate: I don’t believe for a second that the interesting thing about Jarvis’s latest move is what it says about the state of the parties in Westminster. Perhaps he’s realised that a regional mayoralty will give him a chance to build his own power base, like Sadiq Khan or Andy Burnham before him. Perhaps even – a shocking thought, I know – he genuinely thinks it’s a chance to improve the state of things in Yorkshire. 

Then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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