Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 12 June 2017

GE2017 and the Media

There is a danger of missing the point about Labour’s surge and the media. The issue is absolutely not that political commentators were surprised by Labour’s sudden popularity among voters. Of course they were surprised, because there was no evidence for it before May 2017. The dismal showing of Labour in the council elections at the start of May was real enough. Those on the left who say they knew it would happen are using the word ‘knew’ in the same sense as football supporters knowing their own side is going to win.

We all have a pretty good idea why the surge happened. In style Corbyn was everything May was not, and Labour’s policies were popular. What the media should be worried about was that both those things came as a surprise to the public. As I said here, a general election campaign is unusual because the public get to see much more of the party leaders and hear much more about their policies, and the broadcasters are duty bound to be impartial. But the character of May and Corbyn did not change overnight, and neither were the policies offered by either side very different from the stance they took before the election. So why were people so surprised?

Someone more cynical than I might suggest that the media’s job is to distort reality: to portray May as more competent than she was and to portray Corbyn as incompetent. What happened in the election campaign is that the electorate got a proper look at the two main leaders and their policies, and realised what the media had been saying was false.

That cynical view is completely appropriate to most of the right wing press, whose job is to distort reality as much as they can get away with. (Remember that damning article about May just before the election that was pulled by the Telegraph?) But why did the truth about May and Corbyn not make any impression on the public until the election? Did political commentators know no more than the public, and were just as surprised as the public about May and Corbyn’s character and their policies during the campaign? If that is the case, they were poor journalists. Or is it that they failed to communicate what they did know?.

Is the problem that the broadcast media feels duty bound to just present soundbites (May can do those), and the independent press in the UK is just too small? Or is the problem that the right wing media for one reason or another sets the parameters for other journalists. Is it that political journalists like winners and despise losers, so let the polls influence how they portrayed individuals and parties? I do not know the answers, but these are the questions the media needs to reflect on.   


  1. Hi,

    I agree with the overall thrust of this. However, is there not some sense in which the rest of the article overturns the assertion of the last sentence of the first paragraph?

    Many would place me firmly on the left (I don't quite feel that way). I anticipated that Labour would do far better than expected - and expressed these views - precisely because of the increased exposure an election campaign would bring.

    I would apply your assertion more to the Conservative side (though of course the MSM heavily underwrote that) - though certainly I would not have described my anticipation as knowledge, which may be where you are really coming from.

    Also, I have a 19 year old daughter and I suspect that the MSM has far less purchase on the views of the young. It will be interesting when we finally get a clear granular picture (if we do) on the voting demographic. However, I suspect this will turn out (!) to be less significant than some suggest.

    I still anticipate that we are close to a paradigm change in the politically possible. The political situation in France is equally interesting. I may be getting a little overblown - but there is a feeling....

  2. Let's not forget the demand side. Most people don't normally pay a lot of attention to politics, but may make an exception for general election campaigns. So if the campaign is the first time many people got a good look at May and Corbyn, that might simply be because that's how people like it.

  3. Some might argue that there was evidence of Corbyn support prior to the election and that a more impartial and news-hungry media might have reported it. True, the polls didn't show it and the Council elections did not reflect it either, but were all other manifestations of support fatally tainted by prejudice? You dismiss the supporters' bias. Was there not also a commentator-consensus bias, which discounted the support because it didn't make sense to them, or for other reasons I am not cynical enough to propose?

  4. Young people spend hours every day getting educated by progressional truth-tellers called teachers or lecturers.
    Once they leave education they then spend hours every day getting deceived by professional deceivers: politicians, newspapers, advertisers, big business....
    How can they protected against deceivers? By teachers? By the internet?

    1. The internet makes them significantly more vulnerable. Social media, particularly Facebook, is almost like blood and air. They live through it, they get bullied through it, they sadly sometimes kill themselves on it.

      Their social media experience this election was one of reportedly targeted advertising and the sharing of information through alternative news sources, but also from the parties themselves.

      Facebook alters the content better to suit the user, which is why young people were so utterly bewildered last year- they just never saw or heard from anyone who would even dream of voting for brexit. Even if (as I did) you saw some posts or content from leavers, it would usually be followed by a volley of abuse aimed at the poster under the line.

      I saw two things which I found striking during the last 6 weeks-

      1) Being a lefty nutter, I have spent 2 years seeing articles from 'the canary' and 'another angry voice' being shared- both of which tended to be highly Pro Corbyn. I saw lots during the campaign have to admit I viewed their posts with probably as much suspicion as when I see one from the S*n or the daily mail. It may even have added to my belief that Corbyn wasn't as popular as my social media bubble implied.

      2) There was lots of sharing of anti Corbyn information and videos from apparently reputable sources but propagated by the Conservative party. Particularly notable was a clip of the Kuenssberg interview with JC in which he discussed not supporting shoot to kill. Interestingly this interview is now discredited and BBC trust criticised it because of the editing which appeared to suggest he would not have authorised a lethal response to a Paris style terror attack, which wasn't the question he was asked. In spite of this editorial breach, it was used by the conservatives (presumably with permission) to imply that he wouldn't have authorised police to end the murderous rampage in London, which wasn't accurate. I saw it shared widely by people who then stated words to the effect- I'm worried we wouldn't be safe. It is very difficult to know what information is spreading on social media, and to whom it is being spread. Targeted ads are fleeting and not subject to the same standards as broadcast or print advertising, and you don't get to see one unless you are the target. It's hard to know what strategies the parties can use to rebut misinformation being spread this way, in an environment manipulated by a huge offshore corporation.

  5. I heard Jeffrey Archer and Norman Tebbit straight after the election result criticise May for having had an eight week campaign rather than a shorter one, because Corbyn is known for his campaigning skills.

    It is nice also to note that the Labour, Liberal, SNP, and Green vote together is over 50% of the electorate.

    "Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales. Even more remarkably, after years of austerity, the Conservatives’ advance on 2015 was largest in the seats where average incomes fell most over the past five years, while the party gained no ground at all in the seats where average incomes rose most."

    (Robert Ford. professor of political science at the University of Manchester, in the Guardian Sunday 11 June 2017).

  6. The result shouldn't have come as a surprise to political commentators as it was clearly within the bounds of possibility. One of the reasons that the polls were all over the place was that pollsters had an unusually tough job this election in deciding just what was a representative sample of the electorate. Labour had set themselves up to increase the youth vote. I myself was confident that any poll which modelled itself on 2015 turnout was going to be wrong. The big question was 'how successful were Labour's methods for increasing turnout going to be?' I don't think any mainstream journalist made much of an attempt to answer that question in an informed way (they didn't even have to leave the confines of the M25 - they could have just popped down to Battersea).

    The interesting thing is I think Labour can learn from what they did and reap increased rewards next time. On the other hand it is difficult to see where the right wing press which are the Conservatives biggest weapon can go from here (15 pages on Corbyn's IRA links, free colour supplement of Diane Abbott quotes?). The problem with lying and smearing as strategies is that they gradually lose their effectiveness and in the end are counter-productive. The journalists who work for the right wing papers would do well to ponder that one of the effects of their work is the absolutely terrible rating they have in public trust relative to other European democracies.

  7. Alexander Harvey13 June 2017 at 00:34

    Don't shoot the messengers (journalists), have a word with the editors. There is a disincentive to write stuff that is only bound for the spike.

  8. @anonymous12june07:27 gave a striking quote from the Robert Ford article. I wonder whether a lot of that phenomenon (of Labour losing ground where people were poor and gaining where rich) might just be an artifact of the campaign funding. Labour HQ had a circling the wagons approach and funneled resources into safe seats. Rich areas got local funding from local donors, poor areas didn't have locals who could afford to do that. So some key marginals were lost where the campaign team had only inexperienced volunteer staff and couldn't even afford garden stakes.

  9. I think that the failure of the tories to understand social media and how it works is fascinating. I understand that the tories spent a small fortune on FaceBook in comparison to Momentum who spent just a couple of thousand. The difference was that the Momentum efforts were distributed and often became viral whilst the Conservative efforts went nowhere.

    It is extremely pleasing to see that the right-wing MSM failed to have an effect on the voters of tomorrow although I am sure that they were still influential in turning the grey heads in the country. As time moves on and the right-wing MSM dies off we might see the effect of their pathological and poisonous grip on this country diminish as well.

  10. "The issue is absolutely not that political commentators were surprised by Labour’s sudden popularity among voters. Of course they were surprised, because there was no evidence for it before May 2017. The dismal showing of Labour in the council elections at the start of May was real enough. Those on the left who say they knew it would happen are using the word ‘knew’ in the same sense as football supporters knowing their own side is going to win."

    The results were indeed somewhat surprising. But many commentators weren't just "surprised." It wasn't as if they were simply saying "here's my prediction on the election results." They were repeatedly saying that Labour under Corbyn was completely unelectable - something that was clearly intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy - and that anyone who supported him was a stupid, deluded cultist. They were calling Corbyn supporters things like "thick as pig shit" and "fucking fools" and saying they didn't care about winning (I wonder how many of them were out knocking on doors with Momentum). They weren't just wrong, which is par for the course for anyone making a political prediction; they were arrogantly, obnoxiously, rudely and spectacularly wrong. And they deserve every last bit of the stick they're now getting.

  11. A further comment on this.

    "Those on the left who say they knew it would happen are using the word ‘knew’ in the same sense as football supporters knowing their own side is going to win."

    I haven't seen many people saying they "knew" Labour would do well. But the more important difference is that some people were willing to TRY. All of the pundits predicting a spectacular blowout for Labour were adamant that any kind of move away from neoliberal "centrism" was a certain path to disaster and we just can't have nice things and that's the end of it. Corbyn's supporters were willing to TRY to persuade the electorate of their vision, rather than give up and just go for some nebulous centre ground - and they were told they were stupid and deluded. They may not have known they were going to do well, but at least they fought for something they genuinely believed in, rather than sell out just to get jobs for their boys.

  12. Quite. The fact is that if you looked at the actual polling data, rather than the headline figures that had been adjusted for expected turnout (which is just a guess on the part of the pollsters), Labour was never doing anything like as badly amongst general popular opinion as the headline figures suggested. The assumption was that turnout would go more or less the same way as it had previously, with groups who tend to vote Labour turning out in much lower numbers than groups who tend to vote Tory. But it's not exactly a secret that assumptions that everything will work in the future the same way it did in the past are flawed. Intelligent commentators should have at least considered the possibility that turnout might be different this time with a different Labour leader and campaign style, growing use of social media etc etc.

  13. You miss an obvious point. People could vote for the BLP and know there was no way Corbyn could be PM. The protest vote was a real option. It won't be at the next election.
    An over the the top media merely exacerbated this.
    hopefully the very overrated Lynton Crosby won't around either.


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