Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

Politicians, journalists and media pundits gathered in the Palace of Westminster, London, in early June 2010 to offer their views on a nail-biting British general election.

As each speaker tried to make sense of a month that ended 13 years of Labour rule and brought in the UK’s first coalition government since World War Two, opinion on the panel was split over whether the election had been a victory for the electorate, the press or political spin.

The results showed that the ‘old certainties’ of general elections being determined by national swings between the major parties could no longer be relied upon to predict individual constituency results, veteran Labour MP Stephen Pound asserted.

He said the unexpected loss of several MPs – amid the settling dust of the parliamentary expenses scandal – showed that there was greater scrutiny and accountability at the local level, and was likely to lead to more divergent results in the future. ‘More exposure equals more accountability,’ he said. ‘And democrats will not mourn the loss of safe seats.’

Award-winning author and former Conservative Deputy Chairman Michael Dobbs claimed that the televised Prime Ministerial debates, which he said were ‘as much about spin as anything else’, had completely refocused the election campaign. While arguing that the media ‘didn’t do a very good job’ in revealing the differences between the parties, Dobbs referred to the sudden popularity of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg after his TV appearance. ‘Lots of people,’ he claimed, ‘switched [party allegiance] overnight on the basis of a telegenic smile.’

Lord Dholakia, the Liberal Democrats’ Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, agreed that the elections were coloured by the televised debates. ‘Prior to the first debate people asked “Nick, who?”’ conceded the peer. But Clegg quickly thereafter gained the attention of the electorate, he said. Yet, ruing the Lib Dems poor performance and the UK’s unproportional electoral system, he noted that the third party of British politics gained a ‘million more votes, but did not do well in seats.’

According to influential left-wing blogger Sunny Hundal, the election showed that the impact of the media has been ‘very overplayed.’ The biggest impact on the election was the ability of the parties to galvanise their supporters and get out the vote.’ Lib Dems, ‘he said, ‘didn’t get out to vote.’

Citing polls following negative stories about Gordon Brown in the run-up to the election, Hundal argued that most voters concluded news stories were overblown. He noted that only 17 per cent of the electorate conceded they were less likely to vote for Labour following Brown’s so-called ‘Bigot-gate’ gaffe in which he was inadvertently recorded criticising a pensioner in Rochdale.

Hundal also claimed that newspaper attacks focusing on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s alleged ‘Nazi slurs’ against Britain had failed to influence the result. Polls showed just four per cent of voters claimed they were less likely to vote for Clegg as a result, which he said highlighted the ‘little impact the press had over spinning a narrative.’ ‘The press influences or reinforces prejudices,’ Hundal said, ‘but it doesn’t move on political direction. It is highly unlikely The Sun can say it won the election.’

Arguing that blogs entered the mainstream of political campaigning, Hundal concluded that technology would soon overtake spin and the press as decisive election-winning factors. ‘Within the Westminster bubble I think a lot of people pay attention to the media, but it has little impact. It comes down to how politicians use technology to stimulate door knocking,’ he said. ‘The future of politics is not spin, but technology.’

Offering a counterpoint, author and political analyst Nicholas Jones asserted that the election showed the media indeed remains influential. Highlighting the apparent ability of some of the media to mount a ‘very effective campaign’ of its own to raise the issue of immigration and the Liberal Democrats’ ‘amnesty’ policy, he claimed the press showed it has an ‘impact in the country which you cannot ignore – it frames the debate.’

Jones also noted that the three main parties were by-and-large able to squeeze out smaller parties and independent candidates, with few exceptions. ‘[Independent candidate and former BBC television presenter] Esther Rantzen couldn’t even get 2,000 votes,’ he said.

Looking to the future, Jones noted that while Conservative and Lib Dem spin doctors will have been desperately digging out files on each others’ leaders during the campaign, today these ‘tribal propagandists’ are being forced to sing from the same hymn sheet. Observers, he said, should look for negative briefings from anonymous government insiders for the first signs of cracks in the government.

Dobbs meanwhile wryly predicted there would be ‘trouble ahead’ for the newly formed Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. ‘Your opponents may be ahead of you,’ he quipped, but your enemies are behind.’