Election campaigns are not just about who is going to win. Yes, the final result is all that matters in terms of power but democracy is about debate and deliberation as well as the decision. It’s a moment when we are supposed to talk to ourselves as a nation about who we are and what we want to be. So how do you report an election like UK 2017 when the polls (even allowing for ‘shy’ voters and statistical glitches) indicate a landslide victory for one side with seven long weeks still to go?
We have already seen a trend over the last decades towards ‘horse-race’ coverage of elections: focusing on who is ahead, the ratings for the leaders, and the marginal shifts in public opinion in response to TV debates, incidents (“that bigoted woman”) or potential government configurations. The latter was especially important in 2015 as the polls (falsely it now seems) suggested a possible SNP/Labour coalition.
Researchers like Stephen Cushion from Cardiff University showed empirically that the news media talked more in 2015 about who is gaining or losing ground in the race rather than issues or policies. In 2015 I argued that it was valid to spend so much time covering the race as a race because it appeared so close. The potential configurations of the result were of great political importance.
But this is a long-term trend and not just in the UK. It has gone much further in the US. The last presidential campaign ended up almost purely as an issue-free personality contest with the narrative of Trump’s insurgent hand-to-hand combat with Hillary crowding out any real investigation of policies. And look where that ended up.
Some countries such as France seek to restrict this kind of coverage by limiting polling at certain phases of campaigns. However, I think that is a restriction of freedom of expression and in practice has little impact.
Now in 2017 in the UK it seems that the horse-race is done and dusted. The Corbyn Labour nag has smashed straight into the first fence while the May mare is already around the bend and flying down the first straight. The Mirror’s Com Res poll putting the Tories on 50% and Labour on 25% is on trend*. Corbyn is even behind May on Labour’s heartland issue of the NHS. The detail on who the public trust as leaders just adds to the sense that (to mix sporting metaphors) team Labour are 5 goals down after ten minutes. They haven’t even got out of their own half.
Of course, there are still real battles to be won and lost. The final tally in Scotland, for example, will have an impact on the possibility of a second independence referendum. Any revival for the Lib Dems may play into the debate about Brexit terms. But not much.
How low Labour goes matters in terms of the future leadership and direction of that party. Any revival from their current nadir will be hailed by Corbyn supporters as a justification for him staying on as leader after June 7th. I suspect a hard-core of Corbynites welcome heavy defeat if it brings a clearing out of MPs seen as hostile to their project to take Labour leftwards. For them winning power is an elitist parliamentarian obsession and the real struggle is to build a movement ‘in the country’ for long-term radical change.
For the Tories the real political battle is whether a massive majority would allow the Prime Minister more wiggle room in her Brexit negotiations and whether she’ll her time in power to build a centrist or a radical right government.
The national contest becomes, in effect, the fight for the soul and control of the two main parties not the country.
So the challenge for political journalism is no longer just the main horse-race. It is to survey the party political landscape. That must also mean looking harder at policy. Not just comparing the manifestos but some much more detailed analysis of, for example, what on earth we mean by ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. What options are there for tax changes, the health service and education reform? What kind of governing party – but also what kind of opposition will we get? This campaign is a unique opportunity to get the politicians to be clearer about what they intend to do with power (or their lack of it).
There have been some indications that both Corbyn and May are prepared to float some policy ideas. However, I also see signs of the kind of play-safe stage management that dominated the 2015 campaign where leading politicians stuck to tightly-scripted and often repeated cliches and avoided debating the issues with each other or with journalists. Political correspondents are already reporting that they are being prevented from engaging with the politicians and the public at the campaign events. When ITV’s Libby Wiener tried to put a tough but sensible question to Jeremy Corbyn she was heckled by his supporters.
Back in 2015 when Polis held a conference on reporting elections at the LSE we had major contributions from Sky’s Adam Boulton and the BBC’s Andrew Marr. They both shared the fear that the vicious cycle of spin would mean we would have a sterile election campaign where the big issues such as the future of Britain and Europe would go un-debated because the politicians refused to engage and because journalists would focus too much on the process of a ‘close’ election instead of policies or politics. They were right. A year later the UK voted to leave the EU. The result may not be in much doubt but there is still much at stake. This time the news media has no excuse.
So how have the news media responded?
Partly the focus is shifting to what a landslide means to the parties.
Matthew D’ancona writes in the Guardian about how a big majority might see May focus on gaining wider support from outside the middle classes.
And policies are getting some attention, with Raphael Hogarth in the Times questioning Labour’s support for the ‘pension triple lock’
*Of course, it’s just one poll but it seems in line with others. However, a rather contrived version of the polling in the Mail on Sunday is somewhat less cheering for the Tories. And as Professor Rob Ford points out in this detailed article, there are still risks ahead in such an unusual ‘post’Brexit’ election.
This article by Professor Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, the LSE’s journalism think-tank.