Will it be the Sun wot sinks Brown?

The Labour Party’s hate-love relationship with the tabloid newspaper speaks volumes about the demise of Labourism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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After the Conservative victory in the 1992 General Election, during which the Tory-leaning tabloid, the Sun, launched stinging attacks on Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the newspaper declared on its front page: ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’. Many Labourites agreed. They believed that the Sun’s frequent frontpage assaults on Labour effectively brainwashed sections of the fickle British public to plump for John Major’s Tories over Kinnock and Co. Now, as the Sun switches from New Labour, whose baton it picked up in 1997, back to the Tories, many are thinking ‘It’s the Sun wot sunk it’… They fear that the Sun’s rejection of New Labour and adoption of David Cameron’s Conservatives – announced this morning under the superbly unenthusiastic slogan ‘We’re feeling blue’ – will be the bomb that sinks the already flailing ship of New Labour.

The love-hate relationship between Labour and the Sun over the past 20 years reveals much about the nature and the state of the contemporary Labour Party. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour Party and its supporters despised the Sun, seeing it as the evil Thatcherite rag that induced less-than-intelligent working people to vote for the Tories. That assessment was only reinforced by a bitter strike by printers in 1986 after News International introduced new, electronic printing presses at its plant at Wapping, east London. But from the mid-1990s until yesterday, Labour flirted full-on with the Sun, cultivating a close relationship with its owner (Rupert Murdoch) and its editors (especially Rebekah Wade) in the belief that having the Sun on side was the best way of guaranteeing electoral victory. The two sides of this relationship with the Sun, the initial hatred followed by the cosy love-in, speak volumes about the decline of Labourism and the historic hollowing out of the Labour Party.

It is true that, in the 1980s in particular, many of the daily tabloids were anti-Labour. But it is super-simplistic bordering on plain wrong to blame the tabloids for destroying the Labour Party’s chances of victory in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections. By the time of the 1992 General Election, the Daily Express (1.52million readers), the Daily Mail (1.67million readers), the Sun (3.57million readers), the Star (800,000 readers) and Today (530,000 readers) were all vehemently or generally pro-Tory, while the Daily Mirror (2.9million readers) was pro-Labour.


Sun frontpage after the
1992 General Election

The tabloids launched numerous assault on Labour policies and Labour leaders. They attacked Michael Foot (Labour leader from 1980 to 1983) with gusto. He was ‘as dead as a stuffed dodo’ said the Sun in 1983, under the headline ‘DO YOU SERIOUSLY WANT THIS OLD MAN TO RUN BRITAIN?’ (it’s unlikely the Sun would get away with a headline like that in today’s ageing society). Foot was described as ‘half socialist… half ranter, half raver, half baked and half gone’. The Sun wasn’t much kinder to Kinnock, Labour leader from 1983 to 1992. But sometimes its coverage was of the apolitical, or perhaps post-political, variety. In the run-up to the vote in 1992, the Sun asked a psychic to contact dead celebrities to ask if they would vote for John Major or Neil Kinnock. The psychic discovered that where Elvis, Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria said they preferred John Major, Stalin, Mao and Trotsky said they would back Kinnock. The headline was: ‘WHY I’M BACKING KINNOCK, BY STALIN’. (The psychic also discovered, strangely, that John Lennon planned to back Kinnock… though it’s widely suspected that this is because a sub on the Sun misunderstood his editor’s suggestion that ‘we should have Lenin backing Kinnock too’.)

Most infamously, on the eve of the 1992 General Election, the Sun published a frontpage picture of Neil Kinnock’s head shaped like a lightbulb with the headline: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’ For many Labourites, after years of anti-Labour abuse by the Sun, this front page was the final straw. ‘It was the Sun wot won it [for the Tories]’, claimed Labour bigwig Roy Hattersley, writing in 1995. Labour officials revealed that the incessant tabloid attacks on Kinnock left him ‘beleaguered and depressed’ and convinced him that it was the newspapers, and by extension their silly, easily led readers, that deprived him of the chance to lead Britain. This is nonsense. The Sun didn’t win the elections for the Tories in 1983, 1987 and 1992 – instead Labour comprehensively lost them, as a result of its historic political demise from the early 1980s onwards, its fraying connections with grassroots working voters, and its failure to offer any serious alternative to Thatcher and Major.

Labour supporters’ tendency to blame the Sun for their party’s electoral failures was underpinned by an odious combination of anti-worker snobbery and political cowardice. The idea that the tabloids made the apparently tip-top Labour Party look bad in the eyes of the public is based on a vision of tabloid readers as thick and uncultured. As one Labour sympathiser has argued, readers of the Sun were ‘easier to influence’ than other people, being ‘more electorally volatile, politically ignorant, undecided and disinterested’ (1). Here, the 3million-plus readers of the Sun are depicted as an unknowable, unpredictable mob easily moulded into a prejudicial support base for evil Thatcherism. It is no wonder that, following the 1992 General Election, the Labour Party proposed clamping down on the media. Oxymoronically arguing that press freedom had to be ‘actively guaranteed and improved by state intervention’ (2), Labour and its supporters proposed making it more difficult for individuals to own more than one newspaper and to break the monopoly held by some media moguls on newspaper publication.

In short, unable to convince the electorate to support it, Labour instinctively sought more tightly to control the media instead. As one critical commentator argued in the early 1990s: ‘[E]very time Labour loses an election they blame the Tory press… the fact of the matter is that it was Labour’s policies that helped swing the election to the Tories.’ (3) The truth is that even in 1992, the Sun’s attacks on Labour were not that frequent and not that convincing or harsh; they were often ‘comparatively apolitical and even anti-political’ (4). Rather, the tendency amongst working-class readers of the tabloids to reject the idea of voting for Labour did not spring from their having been brainwashed by daft headlines or shrill editorials, but rather reflected the drawn-out demise of Labourism and the Labour Party’s collapse in support amongst working-class communities that were tired of its lack of principle, direction and its penchant for selling out.

Labour’s support amongst the manual working classes – many of whom happen to read tabloids – fell from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. By the 1980s, Labour was no longer a serious working-class party, but rather was staffed and most keenly supported by the middle classes and members of the public sector, while the working classes left it and turned elsewhere. Not surprisingly, such a party could easily turn from representing the working classes to demonising them, so that in the 1980s it became de rigueur for Guardian-reading, Sun-hating Labour Party members and MPs to accuse ‘politically ignorant’ Sun readers of ruining Labour’s chances of taking power – when in fact Labour did that all by itself.

Then, when New Labour emerged in the mid-1990s, its decision to chase the Sun and court its support also revealed much about the end of old Labourism and the rise of a new form of media-oriented politics. Bereft of any meaningful grassroots support, in terms of active members or numerous financiers, New Labour has always sought to speak to the media rather than directly to the public, hoping that newspapers, TV and radio will provide it with a platform that it lacks in the arena of public debate and public engagement. Where Kinnock and the rest were convinced that the Sun destroyed their party in the 1980s, first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown hoped that the Sun might save and boost their party in the 1990s and 2000s. Blair’s dalliance with Murdoch did not spring, as many suggested, from New Labour’s conversion to a free-marketeer, tabloid mentality, but rather from a desperation amongst New Labourites to find some point of connection with a public exhausted by the Tories, but unenthusiastic about Labour.

When New Labour rose to power in 1997, its media support was far more uniform, conformist and stultifying than the support won by the Tories from the tabloids in the 1980s. All the tabloids, including the Sun, supported Blair in 1997 and 2001. In 2001, The Times came out for Labour for the first time in its history, as did the Financial Times. So did even the bible of the capitalist-reading classes, The Economist, which in 2001 ran a picture of Blair with Margaret Thatcher’s hair under the headline ‘Vote conservative’ (note the lower-case c). Funnily enough, no Labour leaders thought to complain to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission about this startling incidence of political conformity amongst media outlets. Such widespread media support for New Labour reflected the demise of the old left-right clash, the emptying out of political agendas and arguments, and the rise instead of New Labour’s managerial, apolitical style of doing politics, which could be supported by everyone from the stuffy Financial Times to the old Labour paper, the Daily Mirror.

And now, the Sun has returned to the Tory fold. But it won’t be this that loses the election for Brown. He will do that by himself, with a little help from his friends.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics, James Thomas, Routledge, 2005

(2) See Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics, James Thomas, Routledge, 2005

(3) See Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics, James Thomas, Routledge, 2005

(4) See Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics, James Thomas, Routledge, 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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