Paper chasing

Guardian, Guardian, why did you desert Labour? Since The Guardian plumped its electoral backing behind the Lib Dems, there’s been a l0w cry of anguish from some Labour supporters, involving words like “betrayal” and “hypocrites” and “haha, look, David Cameron’s the prime minister anyway”. Kerry McCarthy MP goes for The Guardian again in a blogpost this weekend:

… with its ‘once in a lifetime chance to get PR’ line, [it] lost us the chance of winning several seats where the Labour challenger would have made a far better MP than the Lib Dem incumbent. See Lucy Powell’s campaign in Manchester Withington, where victory looked a dead cert until the Guardian stuck its oar in, and Bristol West, where the votes ebbed away after the Guardian came out for Clegg. And Labour was offering a referendum on AV anyway, which could have put PR on the agenda for discussion too (especially if Labour had been the biggest party, with the Libs holding the balance).

Shot By Both Sides, 22 May 2010, “Puttin’ it down”

One of the curious things about this election was how little the campaign seemed to matter. Back in October, when the feeling of inevitability for Dave was running high, I caught an episode of The Week In Westminster with a pollster and a psephologist discussing the relative standing of Labour and the Conservatives after conference season. Both of them called it for a hung parliament, on the grounds that the swing needed for a Tory majority was immense. Six months before polling day, before most of the papers had pinned on a rosette, it was known that the general election would come down to two things: how big the swing from Labour to Tory would be, and which party was most successful in courting the Lib Dems.

So did the papers’ support make any difference at all? Not really. After all, if The Sun’s Camobama fantasia and The Mail’s dire threats of a fiery doom couldn’t sway it for the Tories, it’s laughable to imagine (even in tentative brackets as McCarthy does) that The Guardian’s support might have made Labour the biggest party in Westminster. As it happens, the Lib Dems gained a measly 1% of the vote and lost 5 seats – hardly a triumph for tactical voting. This was a bad election for newspapers, and a combination of poor judgement and hubris served to underline the fact that newspapers really aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

But politicians still believe in the power of the press – still crave the cushion of a friendly new agenda. Which leaves the depressing spectacle of the Labour leadership contenders running around, chirping anti-immigration talking points back at the right-wing media that created them. This dedication to becoming BNP-lite seems more likely to undo Labour than any amount of disagreement with The Graun over electoral reform. Labour’s pursuit of press support will hurt it much more than the withdrawal of media backing ever could.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

4 thoughts on “Paper chasing

  1. I think the only point where I differ from your analysis is that I think the Guardian’s support carries greater weight than you argue. I think people actually read the Guardian for politics (rather than sport, crossword, tv, tits, etc – which, given that despite everything in the Thatcher years, Sun readers voted Labour must be true of other papers) and also Guardian readers are (I think, but don’t have figures) much more likely to vote.

    The immigration thing is bizarre. I read somewhere that it was the 4th most raised topic on the doorstep, which says to me that there are three more important issues to voters for Labour leadership candidates to worry about. And, as I’ve said on Aaro Watch, Ipsos Mori’s very detailed poll figures don’t suggest a uniform move of the C2s to the Tories; a lower, but comparable number voted pro-immigration LD this time. It’s not the issue. Besides which the only way to reduce Eastern European immigration is to leave the EU, which would have really incalculable repercussions. (I very much doubt that, overall, withdrawal would be a good thing, but I try to keep an open mind.) So, yes, as you say, the only reason it’s in all the candidates’ speeches (except perhaps Diane Abbot’s) is because the right-wing press invented it.

  2. It’s probably true that people read The Guardian for politics, but what shifts votes is the coverage over a whole term, not a few weeks – and the Lib Dems got no polling bump from their backing. If Labour lost out, it was by spending their time in office appeasing Mail and Sun editorials.

  3. If Labour lost out, it was by spending their time in office appeasing Mail and Sun editorials.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the people responsible for the collapse in the Labour vote were the Labour Party themselves. There are huge swathes of the country where the electorate would rather sandpaper their eyeballs than vote Tory and if Labour were unable to keep their supporters everywhere else, that’s Labour’s fault and not the electorate’s.

    While I’m open to the idea that the Guardian’s Lib Dem endorsement may have had some effect, ultimately they have a circulation of around 350,000, and those readers aren’t robots. Further, if the response we got from various blogger types after the election represents feeling within the party – i.e. screw everyone who switched their vote, because they are bastards – then they might as well pack up and go home.

  4. I find Kerry McCarthy’s comment very odd, because I had got the strong impression that the Labour Party didn’t want the votes of Guardian readers. A lot of what the Labour Party said and did seemed to be designed to alienate Guardian readers, for example a very unpleasant leaflet I got the day before polling saying that the LibDems were soft on crime.

    I think that it was pointless for the Guardian to say who they supported in the general election, as its readers don’t need to be told who to vote for, but it’s hardly surprising that the paper didn’t detect much enthusiasm for the Labour Party among its readers.

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