All eyes were on Brighton last week, with Labour holding their final annual conference before the next General Election. The focus seemed very much on rebuilding the party’s morale, with Gordon Brown offering words of encouragement and urging members not to give up on Labour’s chances of success next spring. However, things were not destined to run smoothly, perhaps a reflection of an apparent Labour trend over the past few years? Just hours after Brown’s conference speech, the Sun newspaper ran their front page headline “Labour’s lost it”, claiming that after 12 years in government Labour had lost its way, and were now losing their support.
It is by no means the first time that the Sun has switched allegiance. Historically a Conservative newspaper, it has run various campaigns encouraging Tory victories – once famously depicting Neil Kinnock’s head in a light bulb, accompanied by the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” – and even going so far as to claim sole responsibility for Conservative election success – who could forget the highly literate “It’s the Sun wot won it”. However, in 1997 the Sun broke away from tradition by declaring “The Sun backs Blair”, urging readers to support Labour in the upcoming election, and as we are all aware, this was followed by a landslide Labour victory.
Despite the Sun’s somewhat arrogant belief they were responsible for swinging the close election of 1992 in the Tories favour, a complex debate surrounding media influence remains. Many believe readers are strongly influenced by the political orientation of their chosen newspaper, especially in an era of increasing political apathy. This argument could indeed be persuasive when you consider that the Sun has supported the winner in recent elections, and with a print circulation of around 3 million, its content is far-reaching. Politician’s themselves appear to believe that there is some truth in these claims, showcased by their endless attempts to get media moguls, such as Rupert Murdoch, onside. David Cameron has certainly been pulling out all the stops to gain Murdoch’s support since becoming leader of the Conservatives, and events of the past week suggest he has done so rather successfully.
Nonetheless, this argument does seem slightly simplistic. Is it not more plausible that these days the electorate make informed judgements, basing their decision on who will benefit them most whilst in office? Whether or not they truly believe it, this is the argument Labour and their supporters are voicing – at least publicly. Tony Woodley, of the Unite union, ripped up a copy of the Sun whilst speaking at the conference, suggesting the Sun’s opinion counted for very little. This sentiment was echoed by Gordon Brown who was actively downplaying the potential impact of the papers partisan realignment, claiming in an interview with Sky News, “people decide elections, not newspapers”. It is interesting to question whether this was their viewpoint prior to the allegiance switch? One presumes not.
Whether you believe the media influences voters or not, there can be no denying that this is a significant blow for an already troubled Labour party, who recently came 3rd in an Ipsos MORI public opinion poll. Labour had just a 24% share of the vote, against the Lib Dems 25%, and with the Tories topping the poll at 36%. Although, how much faith we can place in data gathered by telephone survey is another matter for discussion. Despite Labour’s public defiance that the Sun’s lack of support will have very little effect on their potential electoral performance, they must be slightly concerned behind closed doors, given the papers past successes in backing the winner. So, has the Sun lost the election for Labour? Regardless of whether the media influences public opinion, or merely follows it, the stage looks set for a Conservative victory in 2010. However, when it comes to politics, nothing is ever certain.