The Conservatives called this general election because their polling suggested that they would win a landslide victory, with some polls putting Tory support at close to 50% and Labour’s support hovering around 30%. No matter what Theresa May says about Brexit or “strong and stable leadership” it is clear that the election was called for her own political purposes. It was therefore widely thought that manifesto week would be a formality where the Tories are characteristically ambiguous and thus would maintain their lead. The popularity of Labour’s policies and the surprise announcement about Tory changes to pensions and social care have cast doubt on the idea of a coming landslide. The media is now changing their emphasis to focus on the Tory own goal.
The blatantly partisan nature of the British press has placed the idea of the media as a political actor firmly in people’s heads, and consequently noticing what the press cover is vitally important. There were some interesting aspects of the election coverage that benefited Labour, for example the online ‘Grime For Corbyn’ campaign, but it is fair to say that traditional sources of media are still the drivers of political discourse in Britain. The Brexit referendum was a clear example of how the right-wing press, especially the print media, gave oxygen to the official Leave campaign which often spouted the thinly veiled xenophobia that is a mainstay of certain newspapers. Influencing this discourse is thus an important factor in any given election.
The media response to the manifestos has been interesting because of what the Tories announced. Although there were attempts by the Daily Mail and The Daily Express to spin the policies as positive for the country, senior Tory MPs came out swinging. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory Chair of the Health Select Committee, has criticised the policy and the influential Bow Group have said that “the impact on the core vote will be awful”.
All these criticisms were reported by The Times, The Telegraph, and The Sun, along with the ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, and BBC News on TV and radio. The Tory plans have been given oxygen by huge amounts of the mainstream press, and Labour have the opportunity to keep talking about it ad nauseam. It will not be that these unpopular policies will be reported by The Mirror or The Guardian and this will change minds, but rather that right-wing news outlets will also articulate how negative this will be. If a liberal reads of this policy in The Guardian it will make no difference as she wouldn’t have voted for the Tories anyway. But for an elderly person thinking of voting Tory picked up The Times and sees journalists talking about how this will impact on their lives, they’ll think twice before supporting May’s party.
What will the result of this announcement for traditional Tory voters? Your average Tory voter casts their vote for the Conservatives because they believe that both the country and they personally will benefit from a Conservative government. However if pensioners, who have been a reliable voting bloc for the Tories for some years, are made aware that they may well be worse off, they will look for alternatives. Given that Labour is the second largest party, it is only rational for these voters to take a look at Labour’s policies. In doing so, they will discover policies that polling has shown are incredibly popular. This is where Labour need to take advantage.
So far Labour’s campaign approach has been correct. Corbyn has been speaking about bringing communities together and has argued that the supposed inter-generational war going on has been waged by the Tories for their own sectional interests. This messaging needs to continue and you do this by, for want of a better phrase, massaging the egos of pensioners. How would you go about doing this? You appeal to their sense of community, which is a real aspect of elderly people’s thinking.
For example, if you explain to elderly people that not only will they be worse off but that the Tory manifesto explicitly argues for taking food out of the mouths of children, I think a lot of elderly people will respond negatively. Elderly people don’t just care about themselves, so if you make the point that young children will have nutrition programmes cut if the Tories are re-elected, pensioners, many of whom are parents and grandparents, will oppose that policy. By then contrasting it with Labour’s policy of having free school meals for all primary school children, the idea of the Tory-voting pensioner becomes contested.
But again it is not simply enough to go out and speak to people because feasibly this will not work in and of itself. I am convinced that Jeremy Corbyn would win in a landslide if everyone in the country spoke to him personally or went to one of his rallies. The country is too big and the campaign is too short to be able to do that, and therefore Labour must take advantage of the media.
Social media is working well at mobilising younger voters and if the overwhelming majority of younger people vote for Labour, as polling indicates will be the case, this will give Labour a nice boost in the polls. Getting the Labour message out in mainstream media is more difficult but the Tory own goal has given them that chance. Journalists and TV presenters crucifying Tory plans will benefit Labour immensely and putting forward a compelling vision will turn anti-Tory fervour into pro-Labour sentiment. If Labour is to win it needs to continue getting into the Tory-supporting press so that people who would normally sleepwalk into voting Tory are shaken out of their slumber. The press is adding to the Labour momentum and Labour needs to make the most of it whilst the Tories have the backs against the wall.