Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 27 April 2019

How the media can frame our understanding of elections

What will the European elections mean for the future of Brexit? We know that Remain is clearly ahead in polls and has been for some time, but an actual election has additional validity. What better to focus on the EU issue than elections to the European parliament. So quite rightly everyone will be looking to the result to gauge popular opinion.

There is only one problem. The obvious thing to look at is votes cast, because these are unaffected by a voting system that penalises small parties. There are three main pro-Brexit, anti-People’s Vote parties (Con, Brexit and UKIP), five anti-Brexit, pro-PV parties (Green, LibDem, CHUK, SNP and Plaid) and Labour. Although Labour is officially a pro-Brexit party, it is likely something in excess of three quarters of those who vote for Labour are anti-Brexit.

But as I have written before, the media will focus on Nigel Farage. What is also almost certain is that they will focus on seats won rather than votes. As Ian Dunt writes

“Sure, Remain might end up doing as well as Brexit parties in the popular vote, but it won't matter. That's not how journalists think and it's not how Westminster thinks. They care about who wins: how many MEPs are returned and from which party.

I can confirm, based on a twitter conversation with a journalist for a major broadcaster, that this is exactly how they will behave. They will focus on the large number of seats Farage wins compared to the small number of seats that the anti-Brexit parties win in England and declare a victory for Brexit. This journalist even said it would mean the death of a People’s Vote.

Now if this was all about the UK’s representatives to the European Parliament, then of course it would be right to focus on seats. It seems likely that had the Greens, LibDems and CHUK cooperated they would win more seats each than if they fight each other. But if you are trying to assess what the vote means for popular sentiment on Brexit you should look at the vote. Ask any pollster. But the media will to a large extent ignore this.

The only defence for the media’s approach is that politicians will also focus on seats. But will they? I think the truth is that the political parties that do well in terms of seats will do so. Those that do well in terms of votes will focus on votes. In particular the winner in terms of seats will make a great deal of fuss about that fact. The media loves to focus on winners for understandable reasons. The problem comes in letting this focus spill over into statements about issues where its votes not seats that matter.

Suppose the result in terms of votes and seats (excl Northern Ireland) is something like this (not a forecast, but just reasonable numbers to illustrate my point):

Labour 27% Seats 23

Pro-No Deal parties 28% Seats 25

Conservative 14% Seats 10

Anti-Brexit 31% Seats 12

Suppose Farage gets all of those 25 seats. He will be the winner, and we will see celebrations by him everywhere. But does that imply that a People’s Vote is dead? Of course not, as PV parties will have won 58% of the vote. Does it imply we should leave with No Deal. Of course not: no deal parties have only 28% of the vote, which is less than the anti-Brexit parties. Can we trust the media to make these points? I suspect not.

It is depressing how people internalise media behaviour. I have read countless tweets, articles and podcasts saying that the failure of the three anti-Brexit parties to cooperate is a huge mistake, because it will damage Remain’s cause. This is from Remainers themselves, not their opponents, and Remainers who know how the media behaves.

Why is it so difficult for the media to focus on reality, rather than make up a false truth that is sympathetic to certain politicians and newspapers. Maybe the reason is just bias - a bias imposed by the partisan press that too often sets the agenda. Maybe it reflects the media’s obsession with parliament and MPs, where MPs from Remain parties are few in number. Maybe it reflects how the media sees elections as horse races were only the winner matters. None of these reasons are good, so it is a shame that so many people internalise the media's framing rather than challenging it.


  1. The Conservative media's use of Farage as a way of making the Conservative Party into a Leave Party has surely reached its stalemate.

    The Sun and the Daily Mail are backing May's deal, and Farage is against May's deal. The public is against May's deal and against No Deal.

  2. A letter in FT magazine suggested that "Stay" would have been a much better word to use than "Remain", and I think it would be better framing.

  3. "They will focus on the large number of seats Farage wins compared to the small number of seats that the anti-Brexit parties win in England and declare a victory for Brexit. This journalist even said it would mean the death of a People’s Vote"

    But I wager that when the Conservatives lose hundreds of councillors in the English and Northern Irish local elections, as recent by-election results indicate they will, that journalist will not proclaim it as an end of the Tories' Brexit policy.

  4. Ahhh, the role of perspective! Your words bring to mind the role of 'view from the eyes of the observer'.

    I think economists are somewhat like engineers in that they take a 'whole picture' perspective. In this broad perspective, a single product is composed of parts; the final product becomes the combined embodiment of all parts. Brexit is a component but the decision will sharply shape a future economic embodiment.

    I think newspapers (and most people, for that matter) focus on events as they happen, not on how individual events shape future decisions. Maybe this is what we economist and engineers prefer because the alternative may be for newspapers to try to predict how the parts (daily news events) go together to drive the final shape, which really becomes a management or political decision. My usual admonition to newspapers is to "please, just give us the facts".

    In a democracy, voters are asked to be managers, making fundamental decisions as in Brexit. While observing that most people are not managers and most people have little understanding of business and trade, they are nevertheless asked to make societal level decisions that will drive their own well-being in an along-for-the-ride fashion.

    Now that the ignorance level of the public has been reduced by over two years of learning events, I think it is time for a second Brexit vote. Speaking as an economist and engineer, I would have much more respect for a second decision, thinking of it as the result of a considerably better understanding of what is needed to shape the final expected product.

  5. Remain supporters were quite happy that the media concentrated on seats won in 2015 when UKIP secured 13% of the vote but only achieved 1 seat in Parliament. Now that the boot is on the other foot they start complaining.

  6. If you remember, right after the brexit vote i wrote a sarcastic prediction about GBs future as a islamic state, while all the financial institutions moved to independent Scotland. I wrote it out of rage and sorrow about the stupidity of people. Out of disappointment from the english, representing for me everything that is worth to fight for. The same nation that introduced to the world democracy, scientific thinking, industrialisation, the best universities, etc.... all that makes our life worth to live. And suddenly so many in your nation appear to be minions, following a mirage. I am sorry for the British people, for the world, what is happening politically to GB. All i can say, hope the wisdom will overcome the stupidity.


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