What the papers say before polling day

The newspapers' leaders give you a sense of Labour being the least bad of a very bad bunch, rather than a great choice for Britain.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘This election is more important than the election of 1997’, said Tony Blair in Birmingham yesterday. ‘It really, really matters. We are not just asking for people’s vote on Thursday – we are asking for a genuine mandate from the British people.’ So what kind of mandate is Labour getting from the media?

Much has been made of the shift of traditional establishment newspapers towards Labour. The Times lived up to media rumours yesterday when it came out in support of the Labour Party for the first time in its history, as did the Financial Times – and business-class bible The Economist encouraged its readers to ‘Vote conservative’ (note the lower case c) next to a picture of Tony Blair with Thatcher’s hair. But while these papers might have abandoned the Tories in their hour of need, there is a palpable discomfort in their support for Labour. According to The Times, ‘[We] offer a cautious but clear endorsement of the Labour Party in this election’.

Throughout the press, support for New Labour is more equivocal than forthright or passionate. Reading today’s leaders you get a sense of Labour being the least bad of a very bad bunch, rather than a great choice for Britain.

The Guardian backs Blair, but warns that, even if New Labour storms into power on a landslide, it should be ‘very humble indeed about what has occurred’, pointing out that ‘even a big Labour majority will be based on well under 50 percent of the electorate’.

The paper describes its endorsement of Labour as being of the ‘Yes, but’ variety – where you vote Labour but are not particularly happy with everything it has done (or failed to do). Catherine Bennett gives some examples of potential ‘yes, but’ votes elsewhere in the paper: ‘Yes, but I still consider you a gang of vacuous, idea-hating philistines….Yes, but only because there is no alternative….’

The Independent reminds us that ‘by definition, and by its founding spirit, the Independent is not a partisan newspaper’, so ‘we do not presume to recommend to our readers a vote for a particular party’. But it argues that ‘overall, the [Labour] government’s successes outweigh its failures’ and concludes ‘with regret that the Conservative Party on this occasion does not deserve to be elected’. So after a long-winded assessment of the parties’ performances we end up with the hardly shocking suggestion that no sensible person could vote Tory.

The Sun accuses the rest of the media pack of ripping off its idea of supporting Labour: ‘It’s now THREE MONTHS since the Sun said it was backing Blair for another election – and this week the others are following.’ Only, according to the ‘Currant Bun’, the other papers don’t manage to put their support quite so pithily: ‘It isn’t just that others have followed, it is they are saying the SAME things – albeit using thousands more words….’

But even the Sun, not known for being scared to nail its colours to the mast, offers its support to New Labour more for having fulfilled certain criteria than for offering a new vision for Britain: ‘The mood of the country is that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have done ENOUGH to win a second term – they have PROVED they can run the economy.’ That should get Sun readers’ pulses racing.

Summing up the pettiness of much of the election campaign, the Mirror can only get excited about Blair’s policy in the underwear department: ‘The revelation that [Blair] wears Calvin Klein underwear may not seem overly important at first. But this one fact is the final nail in William Hague’s coffin….’ Next to the traditionally Tory papers’ discomfort at supporting Blair, you have the traditionally Labour papers focusing on the most banal bits of the election.

So what about that dying breed, the Tory newspaper? Here, things are even less exciting. The Daily Telegraph seems unable to voice full-blown support for the Tories, preferring instead to point out the bad things about New Labour. ‘You’re not safe with Labour’ runs the headline, followed by an unconvincing attack on Labour over tax, the release of terrorists in Northern Ireland, civil liberties and Europe.

The Telegraph accepts that one ‘accurate criticism of the Tories is that their preparation over the past four years has been a bit thin’ – but still, ‘it is a great thing to be a conservative’ and it’s important to keep alive the spirit of conservatism, so a Tory vote it is. A vote born more out of tradition and ‘identity’ than enthusiasm.

The Tory-supporting Daily Mail has had a terrible time. It hates New Labour and is disappointed with the Tories, but still ‘shares the beliefs and instincts which inspire the [Tory] party’. But then, ‘this is not really an election about who rules Britain’, says the Mail, ‘it is about whether we live under an elective dictatorship or in an effective parliamentary democracy’. For the Mail, the most important thing is that people get out and vote for somebody, anybody, and if in the process they can chip away just a little bit of New Labour’s power, all the better:

‘Whatever your political preference, we urge you not to succumb to the temptations of apathy tomorrow, or to be seduced by the herd instinct of most of the media, but to vote in a way that will prevent Labour having overweening power.’

When the Mail cannot bring itself to print the words ‘Vote Tory’ and the liberal papers suggest we should ‘Vote Labour, but…’, you can see why they’ve been so keen on Jordan, bad hair days and other silly stories in the election. Maybe the Mirror is on to something: ‘This election has all come down to one thing. Pants.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

A landslide that signifies nothing, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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