The 1997 British General Election: Labour reborn

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Benjamin Pringle                301023129

Question Two.

The British General election of 1997 was a truly remarkable political event, resulting in the end of 18 years of Conservative rule in the most emphatic of fashions. In William Hague's words, "the Conservative Party was not just defeated. It was humiliated." 'New Labour' as it was re-branded, won 147 more seats than 1992's defeat, reducing the Conservatives to 165 seats - a 50% reduction. The overwhelming change of loyalty that occurred between elections - in 1992, 70% of newspapers endorsed John Major, but by 1997 over 60% supported Labour - radically altered the political climate of the UK, and will be looked at in depth. The dramatic shift in loyalty that occurred, thanks to Blair's savvy media management, will be examined, as will its corresponding effects on voter-behaviour. Crucially, the loyalty of Blair's famously dubbed "Tony Press" will also receive attention.

By 1997 the Labour party were desperate for a victory. Tony Blair, the newly elected leader, was a fresh face for the beleaguered party, and set about rebranding the party. This included making ‘New Labour’ appear a more appetising partner for the British press, which were traditionally Conservative in their partisanship - owing to their ownership and editorial leaning. Blair’s Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell, stated, "We were appalled by the damage the press could do to Kinnock and others before him and determined they would not do not that Tony Blair." The most damning of these attacks may have been The Sun's, "If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person in Britain Please Turn out the Lights?" - then "It's the Sun Wot Won It" after the Conservative victory. The "permanent exercise [in] damage limitation" that had been a feature of Labour's media relations prior to 1997 was of pressing concern to Blair's 'spin-doctors', who feverishly set about winning over newspapers. Rupert Murdoch's Sun and the Daily Mail were crucial targets, due to their high circulation and mass-appeal amongst Tory supporters - Blair himself met Murdoch and discussed New Labour's pro-business policies. Geddes and Tonge charted the transition of papers from 1992-97, showing that no tabloid made the transition from Labour to Conservative between elections, whereas three made a shift across the Rubicon to declare support for Labour - The Sun's "Who Blairs wins"; Star's "There's Tony one way to go"; and News of the World's "We back Blair". All present unequivocal support for Blair, which became a consistent feature of the campaign - the Presidentialism of the British system led newspapers to support Labour on the weight of its leader, who emerged as a far stronger leader than Major, of whom the Daily Mail called an "ineffectual leader." Other traditionally left-leaning papers like The Mirror were clear in their support, incorporating "Loyal to Labour, loyal to you" into its banner. It was also highly critical of the Tories, publishing "Ultimate Nightmare" which predicted the consequences of a further Conservative government. Mid-market tabloid Conservative supporters like The Daily Mail and The Express attacked Labour for their union links - "Big Brother Blair" and "Conspiracy of Silence" respectively - with the former also focusing on Blair's European policies, alleging they could "sign Britain's death warrant as a free and sovereign nation state." The majority of broadsheets also came out in favour of Labour, with The Independent, Guardian, Financial Times and Observer providing some degree of support. This included articles encouraging anti-Conservative tactical voting, and criticism of Major's legacy.

The spectacular change in newspaper support that occurred in 1997 has been heralded as the main contributing factor to Labour’s landslide victory. One such supporter, Linton, builds upon quantitative evidence from elections post-1945 to show that Labour have never won an election when its “press-deficit” was “more than 18% behind the Tories in terms of press share.” The Sun came out heavily in favour of the Tories, leading to an 8% surge in Conservative support just before the 1992 election, leading Linton to conclude, “It was the Sun wot won it.” Chan & Goldthorpe have furthered Linton’s work, studying the demographics of British newspaper readers, finding, “…education does indeed influence newspaper readership” and that “the probability of [broadsheet readers] reading ‘lowbrow’ redtop tabloids falls…in a more or less linear fashion.” Their study builds on Converse’s, whose study found that 52% of individuals who drew political information from “four media [sources] were opinion givers”, a figure that drops to 15% amongst those deriving their information from one source. He concludes, “…weaker information flow from the mass media generates a vacuum…” that prevented the formation of political opinions. We can deduce that individuals reading tabloid newspapers – which devoted only 11% of their coverage to political news in 1997 – are unlikely to also read broadsheets – which dedicated 90% coverage – are less likely to have high education, less likely to receive political information, less likely to participate in political discussion, and therefore highly susceptible to whatever political communication they are subject to. Hence Linton’s argument that “Britain’s democracy is at the mercy of press proprietors” who had the power to sway this low-educated demographic. Yet newspapers were not the only source of political information for disengaged individuals – “…different channels [of communication] served different functions for the electorate” – the role of television in particular cannot be overlooked. That point aside, Labour did come to power due to the significant support of the working-classes – Norris has shown that around 50% of the skilled working class, and almost 60% of the unskilled working class supported Labour in 1997. Bearing in mind Converse’s findings, the significant proportion of votes that came from the lowest-skilled demographic groups suggest that newspapers have the potential to influence their political decisions, but the relationship is tenuous.

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Scammell and Harrop rebut Linton’s assessment of newspaper influence, claiming that the Conservative party’s disastrous leadership crisis, ‘Black Wednesday’ and the reputation of ‘sleaze’ that stuck to Hamilton, Riddick, Tredinnick among other MPs, contributed to the British public’s increased ‘loathing’ of the Tories – “Labour’s finest hour owed much to Conservative weakness” – which swung opinion against them. Major’s unpopular re-election exposed divisions within the Tories, leading to predictions by The Sun and The Mail  “…that [his] triumph meant inevitable ruin at the general election.” Also significant was the growth of a media-savvy adversary, of whom “…the Conservatives failed to come to grips with…” ...

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