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  1. The Weekend Report
10 June 2023

How will Fleet Street vote at the next general election?

The next UK election could be the first at which the Murdoch papers do not back the winning party.

By William Turvill

The 1992 general election appeared unlosable for Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. The Conservatives, in power for 13 years after three consecutive victories under Margaret Thatcher, had recently led the UK into recession and voters seemed ready for change. Their leader, John Major, was still the public’s preferred prime minister but that didn’t look like it would be enough to secure a fourth victory.

Kinnock, however, had formidable opponents. On the day Britons went to the polls, the Sun’s front page told its millions of readers: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” When Major claimed his unlikely victory, the tabloid’s splash boasted: “It’s the Sun wot won it.”

Five years later, the paper changed its allegiance to Tony Blair’s New Labour and the party duly won the 1997 election. In fact, before each of the past 11 general elections, Rupert Murdoch’s daily tabloid (which had been a regular Labour backer prior to Thatcher’s first victory in 1979) has endorsed the winner in advance.

If it really is the Sun wot wins elections, the polls currently projecting a Labour victory appear misguided. The Sun’s daily editorials are a clear indicator that the newspaper is no fan of Keir Starmer, who is regularly referred to as “Sir Softie” and “Sir Slippery”. Earlier this week, the Sun’s editorial section shrieked that Starmer’s party was “fully in bed with the eco doom cults” after it reported that a political adviser to the party had formerly acted as a lawyer for Extinction Rebellion. Labour, the Sun suggested, is “revealing its true colours, much earlier than Starmer would like. Voters will wake up to it before long.”

Barring some significant changes by Starmer, or a dramatic U-turn by the Sun, it seems unlikely that the red top will call for a Labour government next year. “I don’t think the Sun is going to shine on Labour,” one shadow cabinet member told the New Statesman. Either the current polls – which give Labour a double-digit lead over the Tories – will be proved hopelessly wrong; or the Sun, for the first time since 1979, will not be able to claim to have anointed the next government.

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There is a third, less dramatic but still noteworthy possibility: that the Sun chooses to endorse no candidate. Ben Nunn, Labour’s former director of communications who now works for the PR firm Lexington, still holds out some hope that the Sun could eventually back Labour. But if not, he wonders whether the tabloid, and possibly some other right-leaning newspapers, could say: “Do you know what – we agree it’s time for change, but we are absolutely going to hold a Labour government to the fire. So it becomes ‘we don’t like you, but we’re not yet sure of you’.” David Yelland, who edited the Sun between 1998 and 2003, told me: “Rupert will not back a loser, so I cannot see him backing Rishi. So, in the end, the paper will either back Labour or back nobody.”

[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]

Elsewhere on Fleet Street, endorsements are easier to predict. The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Spectator will back the Tories. The Daily Express and Sunday Express, both of which supported Ukip at the 2015 election, will join them. (The latter two papers are now part of Reach, the company that owns the left-leaning Mirror titles, but this has not significantly affected their politics.) The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People will all endorse Labour; the Guardian and its sister Sunday newspaper, the Observer, will likely endorse Starmer’s party too.

That leaves the floating voters of Fleet Street: the Times, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, the Economist and the online-only Independent. This is likely where Labour’s efforts will be focused. Nunn said that when Starmer became leader of the Labour Party “there was a strategic decision to move beyond just talking to those newspapers that had been traditionally Labour – for us to reach out to the papers that had traditionally been hostile towards the leadership, particularly in the past decade or so”. He added: “You have to talk to all newspapers, because you have to get a hearing across the board. And I think that was particularly important given what Keir inherited in 2020, which was a party at rock bottom. You can’t build from that base by just talking to yourself.”

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, told me: “I think the only reason that there was a feeling they mattered in 1997 is because we were able to shift a few, and therefore it became part of a story about momentum towards us. I think that’s why that was felt to be significant.”

Neither the Times nor the Sunday Times, which are run independently of each other, followed the Sun in backing Labour in 1997, though they did endorse Blair in 2001. The Sunday Times returned to the Tories in 2005, and the daily Times returned in 2010.

Simon Jenkins, who edited the Times in the early 1990s, told me Murdoch had no involvement in his newspaper’s decision to endorse John Major in 1992 and was more focused on the business side of the operation. “His interest in the paper was minimal, except that he wanted costs slashed at the time,” said Jenkins. “He didn’t know who John Major was. To be honest, he just wasn’t very interested, and he did have this vague commitment not to interfere in the editorial policies of the Times. There were quite a lot of examples of that I could cite, but certainly he did not take a deep interest in that election. He really didn’t.”

Asked who he thought the Times might endorse at the next election, Jenkins, now a Guardian columnist, said: “I haven’t a clue. I imagine it will be the outcome of a conversation between the editor and his leader-writing team. That’s the way these things normally work. If at some point or another the publisher or the proprietor says, ‘By the way, who are you thinking of supporting?’ I think the answer would be: ‘We’re thinking of supporting X.’ I don’t think they’d say: ‘Well, who do you want us to support?’”

Both Times titles have backed the Tories at every general election since 2010. But could Labour be in with a chance this time? Some recent Times editorials have expressed concern over Starmer and Labour’s policies. For example, this week a Times leader warned that Labour’s plans to ban new oil and gas licences in the North Sea would be “a dangerous gamble with Britain’s energy security”.

[See also: Westminster has lost its only Green Party MP]

A shadow minister told the New Statesman: “I don’t get the sense the Murdoch stable wants to support Keir, but it’s difficult for the Times as many of their readers are keen on us.” Starmer’s former communications chief, Nunn, struck a more optimistic tone. “As is always the case, 18 months out from the election – it was the case for Blair and it is the case for Keir – you have got to continue making the case to really convince them. But the difference between [now vs] 2019, 2017 and 2015, is I don’t think the door is closed. I think the door is open, which is a distinct difference.”

The Financial Times, more so than at any other recent election, will be seen as a key battleground. The FT has one of Fleet Street’s smallest daily print circulations – just less than 110,000 in April, according to ABC figures – but it has around one million paying digital subscribers, a significant share of whom are thought to be based in the UK. In an era of financial instability and uncertainty, parties will see an endorsement from the FT – an authority on business and economics – as being worth more than its readership alone.

Giles Kenningham, a former director of communications to David Cameron who now heads up the PR firm Trafalgar Strategy, told me that “if the FT comes out for Labour” it would “be a moment”. He added: “Labour desperately needs that economic credibility, which they’ve been lacking. And I think they think it could cost an election if they’re not trusted on the economy.”

The FT’s recent editorials have provided few clues as to which way it could swing before the next election. But this week’s series on the “Starmer Project” suggests the newspaper is taking the party seriously. The title’s historic endorsement record shows why it is worth winning over. It could not bring itself to back either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 (or any party) but it endorsed victors at each of the six elections before that: Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005; the Tories in 2010, 2015 and 2017. (In 1992 it backed Kinnock’s Labour, a decision that helped earn its “pink paper” nickname.)

Could it be the FT, rather than the Sun, wot wins it? Probably not, thinks Alastair Campbell. “The thing about the Financial Times – most readers of the Financial Times will probably be pretty clear on how they’re going to vote already.” Yelland, the former Sun editor, disagreed. “If I was Keir, I would rather have the FT’s backing than the Sun,” he said. “He needs the goodwill of global capital markets, he needs to show that it is the Tories, under Truss, who are the party of capital chaos, not Labour.”

The Economist, which occupies a similar political space to the FT and also has more than a million digital subscribers, is likely to endorse Labour for the first time since 2005, according to a senior source at the magazine. (The title has backed the Liberal Democrats at the last two general elections.)

The open question, of course, is whether editorial endorsements change how people vote. Sceptics have long argued, for instance, that the Sun simply backs the party it already expects to win and that, while front pages and scoops do influence readers, endorsements themselves sway few voters. This feeling is only strengthened by the decline in newspapers’ print fortunes. At the turn of the century, the Sun sold more than 3.5 million newspapers a day; but this figure had fallen to 1.2 million by early 2020 (the last time its circulation was published). It is now likely to have fallen well below a million. There is a similar trend up and down Fleet Street. Editors and proprietors might argue that their influence is greater than ever because, owing to the internet, total audiences have grown. But realistically, when the next election falls, it is difficult to imagine millions of readers scrolling through newspaper websites to read editorial endorsements.

That is not to say that endorsements don’t matter. As Yelland, the former editor of the Sun, put it: “Newspaper endorsements reverberate around the Westminster village like sonic booms. They appear more important than they actually are, and remain just as important now despite the fall off in influence and sales of the tabloids. They matter because they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and because, especially in the case of Rupert Murdoch, there are very few examples – if any – of his papers getting it wrong. They matter because the political parties, leaders and the lobby are obsessed with them.”

The causal effect of endorsements can be debated. But few can question the correlation between newspaper endorsements (especially from floating voters such as the Sun and FT) and electoral victories. The question hanging over Starmer is: will the next election resemble 1992, when Labour failed to win over much of Fleet Street and endured a surprise loss, or 1997, when Blair won over some unlikely media allies on his way to Downing Street?

Many Labour supporters and critics of the right-wing press want neither: they will hope that history records the next general election as the moment when their party swept to victory in spite of Fleet Street.

[See also: Labour and the return of the state]

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