The Sun, as you probably know, has announced that it no longer supports Labour, and has switched its allegiance to the Conservative party (except in Scotland where it ‘remains to be convinced’). This will, predictably, trigger much Conservative joy and much Labour despair, but it doesn’t actually matter, despite what Andrew Neill (the ex-Murdoch apparatchik) thinks.
Murdoch’s lower organ of the press – The Times is, of course, his (fractionally) higher organ – famously claimed to have won the 1992 general election for the Conservatives. It didn’t. In advance, sensible pundits were insisting the 92 election was too close to call, even though the polls were showing a Labour majority (and despite the fact that a still-wet-behind-the-political-ears Aethelread was convinced that his first general election as a voter was a foregone conclusion…). In the end what probably swung things away from Labour was the disastrously triumphalist Sheffield rally, which took place immediately before the election, and so didn’t have time to filter into the poll results.
Then, in 1997, The Sun famously switched allegiance to Labour. Watching Trevor Kavanagh (The Sun’s political editor at the time) saying that it had been his decision, and that his comment piece announcing the switch hadn’t been written under duress, was an interesting experience. Anyway, lots of people got very excited about the change. People on the left accused Tony Blair of ‘selling out to Murdoch’. They might have been right, but I don’t think it would have made any practical difference to The Sun’s political coverage.
The Sun is the most popular newspaper in the UK, and by quite some margin. As such, it makes Mr Murdoch a lot of money, and he is naturally very keen that it continues to do so. This means that it has to sustain its popularity by appearing to be in tune with its readers’ opinions. Naïve people read The Sun, find it full of outspoken populist opinion, assume that the opinions are popular because the paper espouses them, and that The Sun is therefore a masterly exercise in propaganda. Well, it isn’t (although I will admit there is an element of a positive feedback loop going on). Quite apart from anything else, if The Sun were a propaganda tool, why would it change its opinion, on so many issues, so often as it does?
It seems to me that the paper’s public political stance is completely divorced from principle. When The Sun switched its allegiance from Conservative to Labour in 1997, I don’t think it was anything to do with believing that Labour would make the best government, but everything to do with the fact that Labour were – obviously, unavoidably – going to form the next government, whatever The Sun wrote about it. So far as I can tell, no-one seems to seriously believe that the people involved in the political change of tack – the proprietor, the editor, the political editor – had genuinely changed their minds. All that had changed was public opinion, and it was more important to the management of The Sun that the paper was on the winning side of the general election than it was to campaign for the political principles they actually believed in. On BBC World News America last night, Michael Crick described The Sun as a ‘political bellwether’, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s the ultimate political goal hanger.
Today’s switch of allegiance needs to be understood, I think, in these terms. The Sun say they are going to campaign (in England & Wales) for David Cameron and the Conservatives, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they mean. I think that what they mean is that they’re convinced the Conservatives are going to win regardless, and they’re taking steps now to make sure that they’re on the winning side. I think this is backed up by the Scottish ‘footnote’, which few people seem to have even noticed. If the switch to the Conservatives were truly based on deeply-held political conviction, one would expect The Scottish Sun to have changed its allegiance at the same time as its English sister paper. If, on the other hand, the apparent change of heart is motivated by a desire to pick the winning side, then the Scottish difference starts to make sense, because the political situation in Scotland is more complex.
At the next general election, Labour will almost certainly do very badly in Scotland – I would anticipate lots of ‘worst performance in a generation’ type headlines. Unlike in England, though, the Conservatives are unlikely to benefit substantially, mainly because they are no longer the ‘natural opposition’ to Labour in large parts of the country – that role now falls to the SNP. The situation is further complicated by the fact that, although there will almost certainly be a significant swing away from Labour, it remains entirely possible (thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post system) that they will still have a majority of MPs in Scotland. This makes choosing a clear winner difficult, and it’s in this light that the Scottish editor’s decision to refuse (as yet, anyway) to endorse another party seems to make sense.
None of this means, of course, that the announcement isn’t politically significant. The decision to make the announcement today instead of waiting until after David Cameron’s speech to the Conservatives seems very likely to have been designed to change the lead political story of the day. As such, I don’t think there can be any doubt that it was an explicitly political intervention, timed to do maximum damage to the Labour party. But the fact remains that The Sun’s change of apparent heart can’t be accurately described as the beginning of the end for Labour, or even as a nail in the coffin. I’m convinced that if The Sun still believed that Gordon Brown might win – if they believed that David Cameron genuinely needed their campaigning help – then they wouldn’t have made the call, at least not in such definite terms. No, it seems to me that this announcement needs to be understood as something rather different: a sign that the rats are deserting a sinking ship.
This isn’t the post I promised, either. It’s still coming. Part of the complication is that I’ve changed my opinion over the course of writing it, which is involving a certain amount of backtracking through research I thought I’d already done. I realise it’s highly unlikely any of you could give a shit, but still, I can tell you one thing – there is no way the post, when it finally appears, is going to be worth the buildup…