Will Starmer Have a Murdoch Moment?

The Labour leader has been on a media charm offensive since his election in April. But would a Murdoch endorsement be worth it?

Very few headlines have gripped media observers as much as ‘THE SUN BACKS BLAIR’ in 1997. The Sun’s support for Labour throughout Tony Blair’s premiership has led to endless questions about the hold that newspapers have over their readers or whether political mercenaries like Rupert Murdoch simply back a winning horse.

While Keir Starmer has succeeded in raising his own public profile and ratings, Labour as a party still finds itself trailing the Conservatives in the polls. When Labour was endorsed by The Sun in March 1997, the party already held a 28% polling lead. Should Starmer find himself in a similar position in 2024, would an endorsement from the tabloid be useful heading into an election?

Even if the paper is not as powerful as it was, most communications personnel would argue that ‘any support is worth it’. Although its circulation has more than halved, The Sun is still the best-selling newspaper in the country, bought by 1.2m people a day.

Murdoch’s backing would prove most useful in Scotland. Ever since The Sun moved back to Conservative support at the 2010 election, its Scottish sister paper has been an unequivocal ally of the SNP. Labour cannot win in Westminster without picking up seats North of the border and, if SNP polling remains at around 50%, then Starmer may become more exasperated as to how to make inroads into the Scottish electorate.

This is where the argument for The Sun’s support ends. The hardest resistance to a Murdoch pact would come from within Starmer’s own party and cabinet. Ed Miliband would surely express the same reservations that Neil Kinnock expressed to Blair before 1997, after merciless and vitriolic campaigns on a very personal level torpedoed both of their chances of becoming Prime Minister. After the party was left red-faced during the Leveson Inquiry due to Blair’s ‘almost incestuous’ relationship with Murdoch, it became clear that his loyalties were malleable; party grandees such as Tessa Jowell and John Prescott were both victims of phone-hacking. A Labour MP and phone-hacking victim told me that “Too much mutual appreciation dents journalistic freedom and corrupts politics…I hope we’ve learnt our lesson”.

This raises the point that the price for Murdoch support is often not worth it. Not only do Murdoch’s relationships make his behemoth of an organisation even more influential in British politics and subsequently set press regulation back years, it is increasingly clear that Murdoch had far too much control over the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments.

The media landscape within the party has also changed since 1997. While the old voting coalition of Guardian and Mirror readers might not have completely disintegrated, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was marked by a particular scepticism of the ‘mainstream media’. If a substantial portion of the Labour membership are sceptical of the BBC then it is hard to see them warming to a pact with Murdoch-owned newspapers, especially The Sun.

Even the Tories themselves seem to have weakened from the grip that Rupert Murdoch had on the party in the Cameron era. Vote Leave’s use of data in 2016 revolutionised the way in which political parties communicate with the electorate. Dominic Cummings has cut out the need for broad policy support from tabloids and replaced it with a direct address to each individual voter. Given the party political implications of a Murdoch pact, an investment in data-driven voter communication might be more worthwhile in the long-run, especially given dwindling print circulation.

Starmer, like almost every Labour member and MP, would prefer to win an election without the support of The Sun. Declining readership and early polling shows that he is in a far better position to do it than Brown, Miliband or Corbyn before him. It also offers a positive vision for a politics unshackled by Murdoch’s influence and could lead to meaningful press regulation. Labour should go into 2024 with the impetus to challenge the paper, rather than fearing it.

Albie Mills is an Edinburgh-based support worker and Chair of the Young Scottish Fabians.

He tweets @albiealbiemills

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