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UK election 2019: partisan press is pulling out all the stops against Labour

Lenscap Photography via Shutterstock

The idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity could well be tested in the UK’s 2019 election campaign. So could the proposition that the only worse thing than people talking about you is people not talking about you, if our research into press coverage of the election is any indication.

Our analysis of the first week of the campaign shows that the Labour Party and its leadership are getting more press exposure than their rivals so far. But this isn’t necessarily good for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues, when so many of those stories have involved headlines such as this one in the Daily Mail on November 7: “‘The vast majority of British Jews consider Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite:’ Jewish Chronicle delivers devastating attack on Labour leader warning he must NEVER be PM”.

Daily Mail headline, November 15. Daily Mail

Or this one in The Sun the following day: “IAN AUSTIN ‘I’ve given 40 years of my life to Labour, but EVERYONE should vote for Boris’. Here’s why Corbyn is unfit for No10”.

Analysing press partisanship in the current UK general election might seem an exercise in investigating the stark, staring obvious.

If there is one predictable feature of British electioneering it is that most national newspapers titles will support the Conservative party.

But partisanship is a matter of degree as well as allegiance and close analysis of its basis and extent reveals important nuances. Take, for example, the apparent replacement of the “Tory press” with the “Tony press” between 1997 and 2005, when in three consecutive campaigns most press opinion supported Tony Blair and the Labour party.

Research shows these endorsements were uncharacteristically equivocal, offering tepid personal support for the then prime minister rather than his party. This period represented dealignment rather than a realignment in press opinion.

In 2010, majority press opinion again rallied behind the Conservatives but the cheerleaders of this change, particularly The Sun and Daily Mail, seemed uncertain who to target: a foundering Labour prime minister in Gordon Brown or a vibrant, telegenic Liberal Democrat leader in Nick Clegg? They had no such doubts in the 2015 and 2017 campaigns, with the Labour party leaders Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn respectively being subjected to sustained, personal attacks from most of the highest-selling titles.

‘Brexmas election’

What can we expect in the 2019 UK general election where Brexit is likely to dominate the campaign landscape? Boris Johnson’s premiership has steered the Conservatives firmly into the Leave camp, aligning with the strong and established Eurosceptic orientations of many national titles.

But there have been industry changes since the last election that may be significant. A new editor, Geordie Greig, has been appointed at the Daily Mail, now vying with the Sun to be the highest selling daily newspaper in print terms, and he is widely perceived to be more liberal-minded and less anti- Remain than his predecessor, Paul Dacre.

Read more: Geordie Greig: what to expect from the Daily Mail's next editor

The Daily Express and Daily Star have been bought out by the Mirror group, ending the influence of their previous proprietor, Richard Desmond, whose convinced Euroscepticism steered the Express to back UKIP in the 2015 election.

Still a partisan paper: Daily Express front page for November 8. Daily Express

Elsewhere, the Daily Telegraph and the I paper are both up for sale at a time when market conditions remain extremely challenging. National press circulation in the 2017 general election was nearly half of the levels in the 1992 campaign when the Sun newspaper sold more than 3.5 million copies and famously declared: “It’s the Sun wot won it!” The latest circulation figures show the sector has lost a further 2 million readers since the 2017 campaign.

Real-time audit

The Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University will be monitoring press partisanship throughout the campaign as part of its wider “real-time” audit of media coverage of the 2019 UK General Election. Our analysis of reporting of the first week of the formal campaign suggests that Labour are once again facing a rough ride from many national titles, despite the recent changes noted above.

In terms of overall press exposure, leading Labour figures either matched or exceeded coverage given to senior government figures. For example, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were the joint most prominent politicians (appearing in 17.4% of all newspaper items) and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, gained more prominence than the actual chancellor, Sajid Javid (13.5% of all press items versus 9%). Overall, all Labour party sources accounted for 40% of all politicians featured, exceeding Conservative party appearances by 5%.

But this greater exposure cannot be deemed good news for the opposition. Tellingly, ex-Labour MPs received as much press prominence as all Liberal Democrats sources, with Ian Austin, the former Labour MP for Dudley North, receiving three times more coverage than Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson.

Moreover, a large proportion of newspaper items that featured Labour sources had a clearly negative slant. The extent of this is demonstrated in the chart above. For every item, we assessed whether the information or commentary contained within it had positive or negative implications for any political party. The results are calculated by subtracting the total number of negative stories from the total of positive stories for the five main parties. These scores are then weighted by press circulation (where 1 = 1 million).

The results show that Labour have already accumulated a substantial proportion of negative stories in the national press, with only the Conservative party showing a positive balance in the press ledger.

One frequent manifestation of newspaper ambivalence towards Blair was the criticism that his party was obsessed with presentation rather than substance. In 2019, “spin” appears to have disappeared from the electoral lexicon and it is the supposed evil of conviction politics rather than confection politics that is the basis of many press attacks on Labour.

Click here to subscribe to our newsletter if you believe this election should be all about the facts.

The Conversation

David Deacon has previously received funding from the ESRC, British Academy, Leverhulme Foundation, BBC Trust and Electoral Commission

Dominic Wring has previously received funding from the British Academy, Leverhulme Foundation, BBC Trust and Electoral Commission

UK election 2019 could deliver the country’s first real living wage

A real living wage would make a big difference to those on low pay. Shutterstock

The din of political parties outbidding each other on promises to spend more on the NHS, education, transport infrastructure and housing has echoes of pre-austerity and even pre-Thatcher times. In a less familiar but no less noisy competition, both main parties are trying to persuade voters that they are committed to raising living standards by promising a significant rise to the minimum wage. We could well see a transformative assault on low pay in the UK.

As recently as 2015, the hourly national minimum wage was just £6.50. Today, for over-25s, it is £8.21. Promising to raise and extend this national living wage, as it’s now called, the Tories have a target of £10.50 an hour, paid to all over-21s, by 2024. Labour pledges £10 for all over-16s next year. These promised increases – to up to 40% in real terms above the 2015 level – represent a striking new feature of UK politics.

The UK came late to minimum wages, with the first national minimum wage introduced only in 1999. That was 30 years after France, 65 years after the US, and around a century after Australia and New Zealand.

Labour and the unions had feared a national minimum would undermine the collective bargaining system whereby pay deals were negotiated in individual occupations and sectors. Free-market Conservatives criticised public interference in the labour market and opposed the minimum wage at its inception. Yet 20 years later, their rhetoric promises nothing less than to “end low pay altogether”.

In trying to understand this phenomenon, it is worth asking where this new politics of pay is coming from, what exactly the present promises mean, and where it is all going.

Read more: How the old idea of the living wage has been embraced by the political establishment

The switch to a ‘living’ wage

The national minimum wage introduced in 1999 was set at a low level designed only to tackle extreme low pay. Over the next 15 years, policies to raise this level were predominantly cautious, guided by a desire not to make hiring people unaffordable and thus reduce the number of jobs. Any increase was subject to Low Pay Commission advice on what increases were safe in these terms.

But falling real pay in the early 2010s became associated with a crisis in living standards. So the campaign for a Living Wage at a higher level than the statutory minimum started gaining political traction.

This was supported by our research at Loughborough University, which shows clearly that the national minimum wage is not enough to provide a minimum living standard that’s considered acceptable by the general public. The “real living wage” now paid voluntarily by over 5,000 accredited employers, is based on this research. Its new levels, just announced, are £10.75 in London and £9.30 outside.

Living Wage Foundation

After the 2015 election, the then chancellor, George Osborne, transformed the politics of minimum wages by announcing the national living wage. It brought a substantial increase in the compulsory minimum for over-25s, which moves the UK from paying an internationally below-average minimum rate to one of the world’s highest, relative to average pay.

This reversal for the Conservatives was driven by a desire to address living standards, while actually cutting public spending. The latter was proposed through cuts to tax credits paid to low-income workers, arguing that they would need these less if pay improved. These sums did not add up, and fierce criticism of tax credit cuts caused some of them to be reversed. Nonetheless, the pledge to raise minimum pay for over-25s, from about 52% of median pay in 2015 to 60% in 2020, is being kept.

Even without cuts, the policy is projected to save the Treasury money overall. Paying people more brings a boost to tax receipts and reduces tax credits through the means test. Such savings would be limited if an increased minimum were adequately followed through in more public funds for low-paid sectors such as social care (which has not happened). Nevertheless, it’s politically attractive to have a policy that makes people better off without having to raise more public money.

Be careful of politics

Of the present commitments, Labour’s £10 in 2020 pledge bears a closer resemblance to a true living wage, since it is in principle linked to our “real living wage” calculation based on living costs. The Conservatives’ targets are linked to median pay rather than living costs, rising from 60% to two thirds of the median in the coming parliament. Both versions involve bold ambitions that could bring the minimum wage at least to the level of the “real living wage” outside London.

This new willingness to raise people’s living standards, largely at the expense of employers, rests on dropping qualms about the potentially damaging effects on employment rates. Two decades of research for the Low Pay Commission, which advises the government on the minimum wage, backs this up. It shows largely negligible effects so far of the minimum wage on the number of jobs available.

The economist who reviewed this issue for the government, Arindrajit Dube, is cautiously optimistic that raising it further will not have adverse effects on jobs. But he also warns that it must be monitored in case there are.

Whichever policy is introduced involves a crucial competition between political commitment and economic realism. The louder the political promises, the harder it will become to show caution where needed. Significantly, Conservative chancellor, Sajid Javid set his £10.50 target at the latest party conference, a month before Dube’s review gave it the amber light. Shadow chancellor, John McDonnell first called for a compulsory minimum based on a “real living wage” three years ago, and has been highlighting this policy ever since.

You may expect that, as the person who leads the work used to calculate the real living wage, I would welcome unreservedly a commitment to make it compulsory. Yet just as Dube is cautious about unconditional targets from an economic perspective, I am cautious from the point of view of politics and policy.

The living wage movement has made extraordinary strides. But the biggest thing that could set it back, or even kill it, would be clear-cut evidence that it is destroying jobs. So whichever party wins the election, preventing the new national living wage from rising to damaging levels may be the single most important ingredient in permanently ending low pay in the UK.

Click here to subscribe to our newsletter if you believe this election should be all about the facts.

The Conversation

Donald Hirsch receives funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is a member of the Labour Party and co-author of The Living Wage from Agenda Publishing.

The Joker to Guy Fawkes: why protesters around the world are wearing the same masks

From Hong Kong to Chile and from Lebanon to Iraq, people around the world are taking to the streets in protest against their leaders. Across these myriad different protest movements – with their different contexts, histories and goals – people are wearing the same masks. The grinning faces of Guy Fawkes from the film V for Vendetta and of the Joker have become ubiquitous. But why?

A mask is a form of self-presentation, it is the face we choose to show to others. Masks have been used by humans for millennia for a variety of purposes from rituals to theatrical performances in order to entertain, to protect and to disguise.

Protesters have long used masks, from demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq to protests against the World Trade Organisation summits in the 1990s. They have a communicative and performative power to help protesters make demands, raise awareness and offer a degree of protection.

A mask is useful in authoritarian regimes, providing a degree of anonymity for those taking to the streets. Authorities in Hong Kong banned the use of masks in early October, arguing that they nullify the facial recognition technology used to identify and prosecute protesters. This led protesters to engage in creative ways to subvert the law including using hair to disguise their faces.

Becoming someone else

But as well as giving people anonymity, masks have a transformative quality for the person wearing them. They afford people the opportunity to be braver, stronger and less acquiescent in the face of political power. When worn by protesters, masks can encourage people to do something extraordinary, to take to the streets in order to challenge those in power, to render themselves visible and vulnerable alongside others doing the same.

When we wear a mask we become someone else – and so they help to protect and embolden the individual. But behind the mask are faces and bodies, made of flesh – and acutely vulnerable. In recent weeks, people have been shot in Chile, Iraq and Hong Kong. A mask offers little meaningful protection against state violence.

Part of the appeal of masks to protesters is that they are relatively easy to make. the Joker mask requires a few simple colours, five minutes of face painting, and a relatively steady hand. Protest movements over the past ten years, from Sao Paolo to Madrid, have possessed a creative and handmade quality as protesters seek to showcase their authenticity. This handmade quality demonstrates that movements are from the grassroots and a reaction against the political elite who occupy grandiose buildings in the capital.

The Guy Fawkes mask popularised by the hacker collective Anonymous and the Occupy movements has become synonymous with 21st-century protest. Anytime a protest springs up, there is someone selling mass-produced versions of these masks, paradoxically undermining the critique of neoliberal capitalism articulated by both Anonymous and Occupy. The mask has become an anti-establishment trope wielded by ordinary people to register their dissatisfaction with the ideas and policies of the political elite.

Ultimately, protests are struggles to be seen and heard. The use of cultural artefacts and symbols such as the distinctive red and white hood and cloak from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale help people to speak up and speak out. Masks are also a way to foster identity with others and communicate strength against a defined foe.

Aesthetics of protest

My own ongoing research has focused on the aesthetics of protest: elements such as masks, use of colour, art, symbols, slogans, clothes, graffiti and objects that comprise a material and performative quality which is often captured in photos and videos and shared across media platforms. The mainstream media tends to focus on dramatic and carnivalesque imagery, knowing this generates attention. Protesters play along, understanding that this attention is important if the mobilisation is not to fizzle out. Masks help with this media exposure, ensuring that the ideas of the protesters are sustained a while longer.

Read more: From billboards to Twitter, why the aesthetics of protest matters more today

Masks also help protesters to show solidarity with one another, and the mask becomes a common language to register dissent. Even though protesters in Chile, Iraq and Lebanon have very different objectives, be that fighting corruption or challenging unjust policies, they have painted their faces like the Joker for the same purpose: to show that those who are abused, oppressed and ignored are no longer passively accepting their lot.

Due to the film’s global release and the narrative arc of its main character Arthur Fleck, the Joker mask has rapidly emerged as a symbol of the subaltern being empowered, of somebody from the “lower” ranks rising up. The garish face paint cuts across linguistic frontiers, cultural backgrounds and state boundaries. It has become a symbol of unity, where people come together, for a time suspending their differences and societal cleavages to make themselves seen and heard together.

Masks such as this speaks on behalf of the protester, while anchoring each person in a wider struggle. Protesters use such masks as a way to build a counter culture, express unity, claim visibility and to challenge those in power. As such, these masks have become a mainstream vehicle with which to communicate subversion.

The Conversation

Aidan McGarry receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

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