The UK election is over before it begun: so how do you report on that?

Election campaigns are not just about who is going to win. Yes, the final result is all that matters in terms of power but democracy is about debate and deliberation as well as the decision. It’s a moment when we are supposed to talk to ourselves as a nation about who we are and what we want to be. So how do you report an election like UK 2017 when the polls (even allowing for ‘shy’ voters and statistical glitches) indicate a landslide victory for one side with seven long weeks still to go?

We have already seen a trend over the last decades towards ‘horse-race’ coverage of elections: focusing on who is ahead, the ratings for the leaders, and the marginal shifts in public opinion in response to TV debates, incidents (“that bigoted woman”) or potential voting configurations. The latter was especially important in 2015 as the polls (falsely it now seems) suggested a possible SNP/Labour coalition.

Research by people like Stephen Cushion from Cardiff University showed empirically that the news media talked more in 2015 about who is gaining or losing ground in the race rather than issues or policies. In 2015 I argued that it was valid to spend so much time covering the race as a race because it was close and the potential configurations of the result were of great political importance.

But this is a long-term trend and one that has gone much further in the US. The last presidential campaign ended up almost purely as an issue-free personality contest with the narrative of Trump’s insurgent hand-to-hand combat with Hillary crowding out any real investigation of policies.

Some countries such as France seek to restrict this kind of coverage by limiting polling at certain phases of campaigns. Although I think that is a restriction of freedom of information and in practice has little impact.

Now in 2017 in the UK it seems that the horse-race is done and dusted. The Corbyn Labour nag has smashed straight into the first fence while the May mare is already around the bend and flying down the first straight. The Mirror’s Com Res poll putting the Tories on 50% and Labour on 25% is on trend. The detail on who the public trust as leaders just adds to the sense that (to mix sporting metaphors) Labour are 5 goals down after ten minutes. They haven’t even got out of their own half.

Mirror Com Res Poll

Of course, there are still real battles to be won and lost. The final tally in Scotland, for example, will have an impact on the possibility of a second independence referendum.

How low Labour goes matters in terms of the future leadership and direction of that party. I suspect a small minority of Corbynites welcome the clearing out of many MPs who they see as hostile to their project to take Labour leftwards. For them winning power is a parliamentary obsession and the real struggle is to build a movement ‘in the country’ for radical change that might take a decade.

For the Tories the real political battle is whether a massive majority would allow the Prime Minister more wiggle room in her Brexit negotiations.

The national contest becomes, in effect, the fight for the soul and control of the two main parties not the country.

So the challenge for political journalism is no longer the horse-race. It is to survey the party political landscape. That must also mean looking harder at policy. Not just comparing the manifestos but some much more detailed analysis of, for example, what on earth we mean by ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. What options are there for tax changes, the health service and education reform? What kind of governing party — but also what kind of opposition will we get? This campaign is a unique opportunity to get the politicians to be clearer about what they intend to do with power (or their lack of it).

There have been some indications that both Corbyn and May are prepared to float some policy ideas. However, I also see signs of the kind of play-safe stage management that dominated the 2015 campaign where leading politicians stuck to tightly-scripted and often repeated cliches and avoided debating the issues with each other or with journalists. Political correspondents are already reporting that they are being prevented from engaging with the politicians and the public at the campaign events. When ITV’s Libby Wiener tried to put a tough but sensible question to Jeremy Corbyn she was heckled by his supporters.

Back in 2015 when Polis held a conference on reporting elections at the LSE we had major contributions from Sky’s Adam Boulton and the BBC’s Andrew Marr. They both shared the fear that the vicious cycle of spin would mean we would have a sterile election campaign where the big issues such as the future of Britain and Europe would go undebated because the politicians refused to engage and because journalists would focus too much on the process of a ‘close’ election instead of policies or politics. This time the news media has no excuse.

This article by Professor Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, the LSE’s journalism think-tank.


Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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