Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 28 November 2014

Do we get the leaders our media deserves?

One of the many things I enjoyed about the Resolution Foundation meeting I talked about here was meeting for the first time people who I have long enjoyed reading, including fellow bloggers Frances Coppola and Steven Toft (Flip Chart Rick), recent blogger Giles Wilkes and Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee. On the day of the meeting Polly Toynbee wrote a nice column on the attempts by the right wing press to portray Labour as elitist and/or too intellectual and therefore ‘out of touch’ with the concerns of ordinary people. That column has a sentence that is so apt I’ll save it for the end of this post.

Readers from the US will be all too familiar with this tactic, from the Gore-Bush campaign for example. A closely related ploy is to argue that politicians who are not poor who advocate policies to help the poor are somehow hypocrites (which of course tells us a great deal about the ethics of those making that accusation). Of course attempts to use background, income or character as evidence against a politician are not unique to the right. Arguments that because Cameron and much of his circle went to Eton and therefore cannot represent ordinary people are no better.

Indeed, as this article by New Statesman editor Jason Cowley illustrates all too well, the left can easily tar their own leaders with a similar brush. Here is a quote:

“Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.”

No evidence is presented that Miliband does not “really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration”. That can only make sense if it follows from him being “an old-style Hampstead socialist”. There is no real difference between this and the articles in the right wing press about which Polly Toynbee rightly complains.

Of course left and right are not symmetrical in one important sense: power. The right control the media spotlight, and it is focused on Miliband, such that every misfortune - self inflicted (HT Tim Harford) or otherwise - becomes a reflection on Miliband’s character. So the SNP’s popularity, and the likely loss of Labour seats there, is all down to Labour's Westminster elitism, and nothing to do with a resurgence of Scottish nationalism which in turn is a reaction against the current UK government. Voter defections from Labour to UKIP are put down to an alleged Hampstead/Islington intellectual tone: never mind that we have a governing party actually falling apart over an issue crucial to the future of the country. A tweet of a house festooned with English flags is further evidence of an alleged contempt for the working class, while employing someone at the centre of government who was subsequently jailed for being part of routine phone hacking is apparently not a reflection of anything. In this situation, is it any wonder Miliband has bad personal poll ratings. [1] It has ever been thus. Neil Kinnock, an eloquent and passionate speaker with eminent working class credentials became at the hands of the media a “Welsh windbag” who did not have the gravitas of a prime minister. The only recent Labour leader not savaged by the press was Tony Blair, but only because Blair deliberately cultivated Murdoch, and had policies that were (designed to be?) not threatening to the establishment of which the press are a part, and who was famously relaxed about inequality and the growing wealth of the 1%. But I digress.

In an FT article about a week ago, Bill Emmott - former Economist editor - raised important issues about the role of the media in portraying political leaders. It has a fantastic opening paragraph:

“Look carefully at the photos from Thursday’s by-election victory of the UK Independence party in Rochester, or those of last month’s Ukip victory in Clacton. Can you see that disembodied smile? No, this is not Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat; it is a Milanese mog. That feline grin represents a dangerous trend in British politics, one that goes beyond our arguments about immigration, the EU or globalisation, important though those are. It is the smile of Silvio Berlusconi.” 

According to polls, our two most popular political leaders at the moment are Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Emmott argues that their popularity comes from the same source as with Berlusconi: they raise a smile, and no one looks too deeply at their mistakes, flip flops or even lies. What Emmott does not explore explicitly is why they are able to get away with things that would sink other politicians. With Berlusconi the answer appeared straightforward - he owned a large part of the media. But what Emmott is suggesting is that maybe ownership is not crucial: if the media are prepared to give a leader as easy ride because they are amusing and charming, we may end up with the same result.

You might think this could not happen here - the moment that either Johnson or Farage get close to power the attitude of the media would become more critical. That seems naive - how close do they need to get? The focus of some parts of the media on background and individual character seems to me part of the same trend, and it is not going to change before the election. We already have a media environment where something like a tweet of a house gets more media coverage than the impact of welfare reforms in driving many to rely on food banks to survive, or worse. It is an environment where on the day that Scotland is devolved substantial new powers, Channel 4 news chooses to lead on what an ex-cabinet minister might have said to a policeman in the heat of the moment. Those in the parts of the media that do not have to follow a political line, but who make decisions about what is newsworthy and what is not, need to reflect on what the impact of these decisions might be.

In truth what a political leader is seen drinking, the quality of their jokes, or even their actions in responding or not to the media, tell us virtually nothing about what they will do if they gain power, and in whose interest they will act. But we are not clueless. The sentence from Polly Toynbee’s article that I wanted to leave until last was this: “By their policies we know whose sides our politicians are on – whose interests they champion.”  

[1] When those who voted Labour in 2010 were asked by YouGov whether Miliband would be up to the job of Prime Minister, 54% said yes in early October, but only 34% said so in early November. Did that one month reveal some serious flaw in his abilities as a future Prime Minister, or did his poll ratings fall because the media were incessantly talking about his poor ratings! These ratings are a convenient (because they are endogenous) device to keep the spotlight focused on him. The same YouGov poll suggests voters would be no more likely to vote Labour if Yvette Cooper or Ed Balls were leader, so the idea that Miliband is a huge impediment holding Labour back seems fanciful.


  1. Krugman blog December 8, 2011 'Slavery Is Freedom, And All That':

    "One of my many radicalizing moments during the Bush years came when a number of the usual suspects began attacking John Kerry because he was, wait for it, too rich. Even with all the cynicism I’d developed over the previous four years, the idea that Republican operatives would invoke class envy for political advantage — and that voters would fall for it — caught me off guard."

    I disagree about Eton, by the way. I was taught by an academic who was at the same Oxford College as Cameron, and speaking to him in 2003 the split between some public school boys and the rest of the university was not pleasant.

  2. 'You might think this could not happen here - the moment that either Johnson or Farage get close to power the attitude of the media would become more critical.'

    It has not become more critical since Johnson became Mayor of London. His 'achievements' in that role seem to be very rarely mentioned.

  3. I agree with everything in this post, but what's the solution? All you suggest is that "those in the parts of the media that do not have to follow a political line, but who make decisions about what is newsworthy and what is not, need to reflect on what the impact of these decisions might be." In my view, that just isn't enough.

    Much of this is about the incentives people who work in media face. The most obvious is the incentive to peddle the politics of your boss. For instance, if you work at a Murdoch paper, even minor deviation from his politics probably not conducive to career progression. One consequence of this is that independent-minded journalists don't progress far, and certainly never become editor. There's a reason no Murdoch title has ever had an editor like Harry Evans since he left in 1982. The only solution to that problem is to find ways of giving journalists more autonomy from the editorial diktats of the people who employ them. Of course, there are plenty of other problems - the lack of any kind of sanctions for deliberately printing grotesque falsehoods like ones Peter Wilby in an article in January (

    "This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false."

    This was what much of the press regulation fight was about. That fight still isn't actually over, as much as the press would like to pretend it is. The possibility that Miliband might actually see it through if he's elected is an essential part of why they're so hostile to him.

  4. Hi Simon - can you contact me re a query I have?

    Cllr Bally Singh

  5. "According to polls, our two most popular political leaders at the moment are Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage."

    And probably the two most divisive. My guess is though when these politicians have to come up with real policies besides leaving the EU and controlling immigration they will be in trouble. Not because they are stupid, they are not - although they deliberately cult an image of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. But at the moment they simply do not have the resources that are at the disposal of the major parties/party leaders to formulate a complex fool-proof policy programme on everything from foreign policy to macro to the environmental to education to health, and they will be exposed for that.

  6. I usually look forward to your posts on macro, but your forays into politics always leave you looking like some Guardian columnist, desperately trying to spin events away.

    Miliband looked out of touch because one of his close associates implicitly mocked patriotism and the English, and the best Miliband could come up with was the far-fetched claim that he only had to see a white van to feel "respect".

    Sorry, Prof. Wren-Lewis, but even pretending to believe these people are in touch with ordinary voters isn't clever. There may be people in the Labour party who are, but they seem to be very effectively excluded from power or influence within it.

    1. Can I humbly suggest that is because you read one with different preconceptions than the other. So you read this as arguing that Miliband was in touch with voters - where do I say that? What I argue is that you should judge politicians of whatever hue by their policies, and not by their background, class or reaction to tweets.

  7. "There may be people in the Labour party who are, but they seem to be very effectively excluded from power or influence within it."

    I think that is very true. And analysis of power is obviously crucial for understanding all sorts of things, not least of all inequality. But that does not fit in easily into neo-classical models (although it does in Marxian and Realpolitik models).

    We need to move more away from economics as a subfield of applied mathematics back to the discipline once known as Economics and Political Science.

    1. I find this strange. In a recent speech, Miliband said "Now I have heard some people say they don’t know what we stand for. So let me take the opportunity today to spell it out in the simplest of terms. It is what I stood for when I won the leadership of this party. And it is what I stand for today. This country is too unequal. And we need to change it." Neither Blair or Brown would have said this. Do you think that change is meaningless?

    2. Part of the problem is that the change is not meaningless in itself, but is rendered meaningless by the media's inability to headline it. Even the liberal media prefers to concentrate on "crisis for Ed" stories.

    3. He has said the country is too unequal yes, and he has described the significant gap between a minimum wage and the level the state deems appropriate - see top from tax credits. But I'm not sure what his answer is? He has suggested a mansion tax, but why not a tax on all wealth above a high threshold, not just on wealth held in a particular form of domestic property. To someone who has worked through the Thatcher and Blair years this all seems a little tentative in comparison. Image is always with us it his job to manage his, he wants to be Prime Minister.

  8. I think you are demonstrating your own disconnectedness here, Simon. I am afraid that it matters very much what politicians are drinking etc, because they need to be inspire people to like them and help them. It pains me to say it, because to be honest I dare say I am a similar character myself, but Ed Miliband comes across as a drip, with his sixth-former look, his nasal voice and his lack of the common touch. You may not agree, but at the present time, I think that Britain is heading towards economic collapse, to which the solution is higher taxes - ideally wealth based - on nearly everyone. There is no chance of Ed Miliband inspiring the electorate to accept such sacrifice. The Labour party need to get rid of him - in fact, that need arises because Ed Miliband himself lacks the integrity to accept his own unsuitability and stand down for the sake of his party, and when you look at the alternatives, quite possibly his country too.

    1. Actually, I think Simon's 'disconnectedness' is that he doesn't realize how little an average person cares about both politics and economics. The media would rather provide what the average person wants: entertainment. If political 'news' can provide entertainment then it is win-win for the media and the average person. Unfortunately, we get the media we want.

  9. n America, we seldom judge politicians by their personal policies, as we believe they have none. Politicians, across the American political spectrum, are bought and paid for. Their personal foibles, inane controversies and social priors are how we decipher who has bought them. If we had to understand the impact of policies, there would be less time for football, Black Friday, war on CNN, McDonalds and religious bickering...but we might not have nearly destroyed the world economy.

  10. The very first comment under that Toynbee article seems to me to adequately deal with the questions raised. Even if I do say so.

    Having been there, one of the major problems Labour had in the 1980s was that it adopted the attitude of this blog above. It was all terribly unfair that the meejah was controlled by Evil Rightwingers. The people would vote Labour if only they knew the Truth.

    New Labour put an end to that stupidity. Labour needed to win in the world in which it finds itself. It needed to stop moaning about how it was all terribly unfair and win. Get the message out, but understand what the objections are.

    Today the press has a fraction of the influence it did back then. For a blogger to seriously think that people get their attitudes and information from the print copy of the Mail (the online version is quite different) shows a remarkable failure to understand how the world has changed.

    It is depressing to find an Oxford academic pandering to the attitudes of the left that we thought we had left behind twenty years ago. Back again has come the Toynbee thesis that when Labour loses it will be all terribly unfair.

    There is a very large section of the left that prefers glorious defeat. It didn't like the compromise and failures that the 13 years in government inevitably carried with it. It prefers to whinge, as this blog does here. It is of course greatly comforting to think that the failure of others to wholly agree with you is caused by their ears being shut to the truth by a conspiracy of evil.

    It is much more uncomfortable to face up to the reality.

    1. Well written. In my experience as a (frustrated) Green Party member, many of those thwarted ex-Labour left-wing whingers have gone to mess up that party!

    2. It's a right wing trope that the left always has to "face up to reality", while the right (pace Thatcher, Osborne) has no such restrictions.

    3. Nope. Every party has to win in the world in which we find ourselves in.

      You'll notice that the Tories didn't win in 2010, when all factors favoured them, and won't win in 2015 either.

      I'd accept that it is a trope of the left that democracy is somehow all terribly unfair, and that it is better to lose righteously rather than sully one's hands with compromise.

      If you are a regular reader, you should know that S W-L *really* dislikes democracy and the results it gives.

    4. SH: When I argue that some technical decisions should be delegated with democratic oversight, you say I hate democracy. When I write about the media (as here) and point out that it is unbalanced, which is a problem because it distorts democracy, you accuse me of whinging. Sometimes you make reasonable comments, but on occasions like this you are pure troll.

    5. The field in which I was trained was not economics ('that is obvious', you may well say).

      In that field, the media never, ever comes close to presenting a realistic picture. Sensationalist distortion is the order of the day, even in the 'serious' press.

      At High Table, talk to a scientist about the presentation of scientific developments or climate change in the media. They will all say it is terrible.

      In the Republic, Plato argues two things.

      First that in a democracy those who gain power will be those expert in manipulation and mass appeal who will rarely be those with the technical abilities to govern (BoJo, Farage). Second that it would be better if we were governed instead by those with technical expertise (fiscal councils and the like, his Philosopher Kings).

      In modern garb, you return repeatedly to those two arguments. They are not irrational. It is not irrational to think that democracy is a poor method of government and that it would be better to find an alternative, or at least to curtail its worst traits. The electorate simply do not have the time (or many the ability) to acquire the expertise to make an informed choice.

      Indeed, for those with the requisite technical expertise, but without the populist skills of Farage or BoJo, it is very natural to think like Plato.

      Your complaint is not really about the media (what are you proposing we do, regulate the Mail's output?). Rather it is about a world where there is no mass demand for serious examination of issues, and where as a result those who win elections (Farage, BoJo) are populists you despise. The media is a symptom, not the cause of the problem.

    6. @SH Much of what you describe is not controversial. Yet strangely, different countries (all democracies, which share the same "bad traits") exhibit different priorities in their political and economic policy. Some of this difference is historical and cultural. Some is due to the development over time of different institutional structures. None of this is inevitable, a lot is contestable. I'd prefer it if the UK adopted a more Scandinavian social, political and economic model. Why should that not be possible? Why should I be told that I need to "face up to the reality" that it's not possible - which is what you imply.

    7. No, it is possible but it does mean accepting that we do not and never will live in S W-L's Panglossian world.

      So, it is no good denying, in the column by Toynbee that S W-L praises so highly, that it is a major problem that Labour no longer has any front rank working class representatives. It was no good in 2010 electing Ed Miliband to the leadership when anyone who followed the hustings (as I did) could have told you he was easily the weakest candidate. It is no good blaming the media for the fact that the populace have nil interest in liquidity traps or the zero lower bound. That is like complaining about the weather. What is S W-L proposing, compulsory classes in the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money?

      It involves accepting that, in a democracy, in order to win power those who win are those skilled in manipulation and mass appeal. The sentimental left, which
      Toynbee is the spokesperson for, often complains about this aspect of Blair and New Labour. At root however, that is a complaint about democracy itself (see above).

      It involves being angry with that part of the left happy to lose, their purity unsullied, whilst the numbers using foodbanks grows.

    8. Well I think there's a certain amount disingenuous argument there. First complain about the lack of working class representatives. Then proclaim EM as the weakest candidate. Because the alternative was that bastion of the working class, his brother? The alternatives to EM might have pursued what you call "more realistic" policies. How are those policies going to reduce the numbers using foodbanks? What "realistic" policies would do so?

    9. (i) As I explained in the post in reply to Toynbee's original column (it is the first reply) Labour has always had prominent middle class members of the leadership (eg Attlee, Wilson). The (new) problem is that there are now no working class representatives in the front rank. A bit of an issue for the party given its name.

      A serious leader would have taken steps to reverse this. Instead we have had his parachute regiment of SpAds.

      Miliband's leadership has become a tragedy for him personally now.

      (ii) The major causes of the increase in the use of foodbanks should be easy and cheap to solve. It is the increased use of sanctions and the cuts to working age benefits (which save next to nothing).

    10. Not so tragic if EM wins the next election despite the best efforts of the media, and removes the need for foodbanks, which should make you happy.

      BTW, I don't see any leftist on this blog who would be happy to lose the next election, "purity unsullied" or not. You're just projecting your own opinions.


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