The role of the media in the polarisation of British politics

The media feeds off rapidly-changing, dramatic narratives. This tendency has stoked the polarisation of party politics.

John Boland
5 August 2016
Ben Birchall / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved

A Labour leadership debate. Photo:Ben Birchall / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reservedPolitics has never been so entertaining. In our saturated media-centric world, these recent weeks have been akin to manna from heaven for British news channels. It has almost proved too much for them, as they struggle to keep their editors and iconic figures in attendance at what is deemed the most high profile event on any given day. Nowhere was this more evident recently than in the inadvertently comic press call for the hapless Angela Eagle as she launched her campaign for leadership of the Labour party. Having hesitated for an almost interminable length of time (compared to the rapid-fire evolution of events in the upper echelons of both the current government and the opposition) she eventually chose what she perceived to be as her moment. Only to be usurped by the brief furore surrounding Andrea Leadsom's bid for the premiership. Having steadily built momentum throughout that same morning, it prompted the realisation, on the part of BBC and ITV at least, that they needed to decamp elsewhere to cover the emerging reality that they should be prioritising news reportage to cover the ascension of Britain’s newest would-be prime minister. The contemporary media cycle feeds off immediacy and polarisation of opinion. It’s worth reflecting upon how this has fed into the current turmoil in which the major political parties find themselves embroiled.  

It would seem somewhat trite to identify that British politics is in uncharted territory but, at the present time, it would be rather apt. Firstly, as a consequence of the recent referendum, the nation is facing the reality of preparing for a managed withdrawal from the EU – an entity that it has been actively involved within, in various guises, since 1973 (and membership of which was positively affirmed via referendum back in 1975). Secondly, both major political parties are in a significant state of flux. The current chaotic state of the official opposition serves as a distraction from the concern we should have with regards to the state of the government itself. However, arguably of most intrigue is the manner in which both these scenarios – the conflict and fallout from the decision regarding the EU and the political machinations within Conservative and Labour circles – play out, more than ever, in real time and in the full glare of social media. The voluminous commentary emanating from an unparalleled number of sources, both qualified and unqualified, creates an incredible mosaic of rational/irrational, objective/partisan, insightful/crude, calm/angry and constructive/destructive anecdotes that is almost impossible to keep up with. 

The current chaotic state of the official opposition serves as a distraction from the concern we should have with regards to the state of the government itself. 

The agenda item that got the ball rolling was the long awaited EU referendum. The slew of outcomes of 23 June now stands in increasingly stark contrast with what appears in retrospect to have been a more limited build-up. Prior to 23 June, there were a few well-defined characters that allowed debate to appear centred on the issue of immigration and the linked phrase that may be most remembered from the successful Brexit campaign might just be the one that talked about ‘taking back control’. Campaigning to stay had now former prime minister David Cameron at the helm – arguably drawing on his previous experiences in the advertising world to appear both engaged but suitably bland and unmemorable at the same time. One of the most notable moments of the campaign was his awkward social call with London mayor Sadiq Khan, when they hoped to conjure up the perception that this issue was about more than party politics. The Labour party, of course, was conflicted itself – having nailed its party colours to the Remain mast, but being all the while led by Jeremy Corbyn who did not quite seem so keen about encouraging such an outcome. This final point would be the ammunition for those who have long struggled to comprehend where support for him as an individual comes from to launch their ‘coup’ in the aftermath and fallout of the Brexit decision. In contrast to the blandly polished corporate politicians that dominated the Remain campaign, the Leave campaign was altogether more entertaining. (Corbyn is rather an exception in the Remain camp, due both to his minimal contribution and to his more dated attire). The rag-tag band of brothers that will be forever recalled in the public mind comprise Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and, latterly in terms of impact, Leadsom. Hardly a public relations officer’s dream given that all three can now be seen to have a penchant for notable political gaffes. Johnson and Farage have a history of buffoonery dating back over a longer period, but Leadsom arguably joined their ranks after her post-referendum faux pas. But they triumphed. Johnson has always presented, and indeed played up to, his image of lovable buffoon – but underneath lies a very clever politician. Whilst he may ultimately have been outmanoeuvred by Michael Gove in the final reckoning (in terms of prime ministerial ambition), there is limited doubt that he understood that something was out of kilter with the British electorate and vigorous Leave campaigning generated an outcome that reflected this. Corbyn, to be fair, recognises a similar disconnect between swathes of the electorate and the current generation of MPs but is locked in a destructive battle with his own Labour party that threatens to cost them the opportunity to put the embryonic government of Theresa May under any kind of sustained pressure.

So where to next? The post-referendum fallout has seen both major political parties plunged into a unique state of instability. In a very general sense, the Conservatives appear to have demonstrated the benefit of experience in governing and, on balance, a more media-savvy approach that has mitigated against any increase in uncertainty that could have been evident as a consequence of David Cameron’s decision to stand down as prime minister which triggered an ultimately very swift, leadership ‘contest’. On the face of it, Cameron’s resignation should have resulted in greater media carnage for the current government. There was a dramatic intervention in the leadership race from Gove, which precipitated a dramatic step away from the contest from Johnson, and allowed the elevation of Leadsom, a previously lesser light, to a position of potential victory – only for said lesser light to be snuffed out in inglorious fashion. It’s worth considering the extent to which their media experience – or indeed their favourable relationships with prominent news channels - was the decisive factor in effective ‘bad news’ management. There was one other major contributory factor – enter ‘post-New Labour’. The era beyond Blair has proved deeply traumatic for the party; it has already chewed its way through two leaders, and appears set fair to consume at least a third prior to the next general election. Furthermore, the parliamentary party succeeds in conveying both a sense of alienation and loss of identity at the same time. 

It’s worth considering the extent to which their media experience [...] was the decisive factor in effective ‘bad news’ management

The battle with regard to Blair’s legacy is a huge fault-line and has arguably been intensified by the outcomes of the Chilcot Inquiry. Social media supplies two echo chambers – the Blairites with their mantra of ‘played three, won three’ and the Corbynistas with their grassroots movement convinced that emotion and passion will convince floating voters. Neither are right. Blair’s electoral success was genuinely astounding. The third general election victory in 2005 was the complex one – being achieved, as it was, before both awareness of the calculating cynicism and suggestions of subterfuge with regard to Iraq fully crystallised as well as taking place prior to the Conservatives regaining their organisational rigour and full platform of electability. For ‘post-New Labour’ those halcyon days have long gone. They are in a brutal period of political in-fighting, as they reel at the manner in which the Conservatives have effectively stolen the all-important centre ground in British politics. Corbyn may have a message that could increasingly appeal to a disillusioned and increasingly squeezed middle (in the event that economic fortunes waver post-Brexit), but he is not the leader to navigate the realities of the media and political world as it exists right now. Angela Eagle’s ill-fated campaign to challenge Corbyn has been spun as the heroic step forward that opened the door of change that the Parliamentary Labour party so desired. After her false start, her race never truly got up and running. As a consequence, only the hitherto anonymous Owen Smith stepped forward. He’s the self-styled unity candidate: the man who believes he can harness the Corbynistas and the parliamentarians in lock-step to deliver a truly radical, but politically relevant, rival to the Conservatives by the time of the next general election. 

British politics appears to be at a unique crossroads. The modern media landscape is overwhelmingly characterised by a desire to be heard, irrespective of what you may be saying. This has encouraged commentators to become ever more provocative to generate reaction and drive social media traffic. This has afflicted even mainstays of the ‘centrist’ commentariat. The personification of this effect might just be Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, who now regularly emits a steady stream of political invective (much of it anti-Corbyn). He is one of many, professional and amateur alike, who are locked in the cycle of 'comment quickly and reflect more critically at leisure' that social media now seemingly encourages. The other danger inherent in the online political world is its relative detachment from the real world. We have entered into an era where we are seeing the very real consequences of how political debate has been changed irrevocably. The ability for anyone to present themselves as a political commentator, combined with the opportunity to do this in real-time as events unfold is forcing the major political parties to combat challenges that they have not previously encountered. This form of discourse arguably lends itself to more instinctive reactions based on prejudices and bare opinions, rather than detail and more objective consideration. The reality that the most extreme views can also be presented via social media with a large degree of anonymity increases the scale of the challenge. All this has left the Labour party with far more immediate challenges: attempting to form a politically coherent movement when political discourse tends towards incoherency. It is locked into a leadership contest that has the continued potential to be very damaging (regardless of outcome) as it reveals clear division over future direction. 

We have entered into an era where we are seeing the very real consequences of how political debate has been changed irrevocably

A more detached observer would struggle to define where the Labour party believes it is headed at present. The whole challenge to Corbyn was presented as being predicated, in large part, on fears of the direction he was taking. Yet, after the failure of the Eagle to land, the official challenger Owen Smith has recently participated in a debate where he professes to 'agree with Jeremy' an awful lot. The malaise within the Labour party makes things very straightforward, at present, for Theresa May – her only apparent controversy thus far was the post-Cameron honours debate, which she has skillfully side-stepped. The clever rhetoric of her early speeches as Prime Minister carefully positioned her as another leader of the centre ground. But recent elections have proven how quickly this ‘centre ground’ shifts, and how unreliable it can be as a political strategy. Will she take the calculated risk to cash in on this current political capital? There are technical difficulties in officially calling a snap election but, should it occur, it would likely prove favourable for her. One of the fundamental political debates at present is just how widespread the centre ground actually is. Should the next few years bear witness to increasing polarisation and a resurgence of popular left-wing thinking – particularly as the economy looks like it may start to struggle – the picture could look very different in future. 

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