In the second article of a three-part series, Alex discusses the harmful effects of the media "blame game".
This is the second post of three in my short series of lessons from the election. My first post focused on how the Labour Party must move from being a ‘party of protest’ to becoming a government in waiting. You can find that post here. In this second post, I will focus on the post-election blame game and why we must stop blaming the media.
Shortly after the exit poll was published at 10pm on Thursday 12 December 2019, the blame game started. The Labour Party was facing its worst defeat since 1935. This defeat fell against a Tory government that had presided over 10 years of austerity, a fall in real wages and years of disastrous Brexit negotiations. To make matters worse the Tories were led by a charlatan who had only recently been found by the Supreme Court to have lied to the Queen. The electorate still preferred them to us and the race was on to win the narrative as to why.
Naturally, the official party line was that we needed a period of reflection to digest the election result before discussing in depth what exactly was to blame for such a disastrous defeat. In reality, that reflection lasted less than 30 minutes and the arguments unsurprisingly fell along factional party lines.
Broadly speaking, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters blamed Brexit. Their argument was that we lost support in working-class, post-industrial towns that had a larger proportion of Leave voters. For them, the Party’s support for a second referendum was the reason we lost the election. The Corbyn-sceptics blamed the leadership. The report from the doorstep (and indeed in certain polls since the election) was that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was an issue for many voters. So much for that period of quiet reflection.
Of course, the official party line was actually the correct one to take. No one person or faction within the party can claim to know the full reason for the Labour Party’s defeat. This was a strange election and as we know the electorate can be difficult to predict. When looking at voting patterns, you are looking at the opinions of a wide cross-section of society. From poor to rich, old to young, northern to southern – each voter had their own reason for choosing to vote the way that they did.
No doubt, some people will not have voted for the Labour Party because of its position on Brexit and others because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However, these were not the only issues in play at the election. A number of voters will not have voted Labour because of the reports of anti-Semitism within the Party and others because they did not believe that our manifesto was achievable. It was always far too simplistic in the immediate aftermath of the election to put the blame on one factor or another. A period of quiet reflection and listening to the electorate was needed and still is.
One blame game that the Labour Party will not win is with the media. Since the election result, a number of senior figures across the Party have made a number of public allegations against the media. According to those figures, the Labour Party could not win the last election because of the damage caused by personal attacks in the right-wing media on the Leadership and biased BBC coverage. Indeed, this position was repeated at length at my recent local Branch meeting to discuss the election.
This is where we need to be careful. There is of course some merit to these arguments, particularly in relation to the print media. The most widely read newspapers in the UK are for the most part controlled by incredibly wealthy owners who have much more to gain from a Conservative government than a Labour government. They are in a position to shape an election and attack the Left with a severity and consistency that is not applied to the Right. There has also been a rise in ‘fake news’ in the past decade and it appears that less oversight is given to ensure that news articles are factual and evidence based.
The arguments against the BBC have slightly less credit. Indeed, a number of Conservative commentators have complained since the election that the BBC coverage was biased against them as well. Who can forget Andrew Neil’s viral video calling out Boris Johnson for avoiding scrutiny by failing to attend a leader’s interview. It was hardly all positive press for the Prime Minister.
Whatever your position on the media, and I am sure there will be many of you that disagree, one thing that we can hopefully all agree on is that this is not a recent phenomenon. Labour leaders throughout history have been held to a much higher standard than their Conservative counterparts. Nor is this going to change, especially when the Labour Party is in opposition and unable to make any lasting reform. We know that when we fight the next General Election we will be up against the media and we need to plan our campaign around that.
Most importantly we need to stop the public blame game. As I have set out above, people vote in general elections for a whole manner of reasons. We may not agree with them but it is their right to vote as they see fit and their votes are not any less valid. By blaming the media we are telling those voters that they did not know what they were voting for. That they were duped into voting for the Conservative Party by the ‘nasty right-wing’ media.
To do so is to fail to learn our lessons from the EU Referendum. Pointing out the lies in the Leave campaign did not change voters’ minds. If anything, it entrenched their positions further and fuelled the divide that fed into the election result. Blaming the media will not win over voters and will actually harm our chances of winning the next election.
Right now, we need to listen. We need to reach out to communities that we have lost, to find out their concerns and to listen to them properly. We will not win the next election by remaining in our bubble, by reaching out to our strongholds in metropolitan areas or even (somewhat controversially) our members. At the next election, we need to turn Tory votes into Labour votes and we can only do that by listening to Tory voters. That process starts now and is something that the next leader will need to press on with.
Alex is an employment solicitor and a Young Fabian member.