Study Notes

General Election 2017: The Media

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 30 Oct 2018

This study note explores some key features of the General Election of June 2017 relating to the role and impact of the media.

Opinion Polls

2017 is one of the elections when the opinion polls appeared to get it wrong. Actually, a few polls were quite accurate, but most people didn’t believe them! This is because when polls got it wrong before, in 1992 and 2015 in particular, they overestimated the Labour vote. Following 2015, may polling companies changed their sampling formulas, particularly to adjust for low turnout among young people. When a couple of polls (such as Survation and YouGov) were showing quite a close result, the general response was that they were going to get it wrong, like in 2015, and the other polling companies had got it right.

All the polls showed a big turnaround during the campaign, with Labour gaining ground and Conservatives losing it, but most still predicted a healthy majority for Theresa May and for Labour to lose seats. Indeed, until the final days of the campaign, Labour activists were largely focused on protecting Labour seats rather than fighting to win in marginal seats.

Opinion polls can have a bandwagon effect or a boomerang effect. That most polls seemed to show the Conservatives winning comfortably could have led some who usually voted Conservative to risk a protest vote for other parties (such as the Liberal Democrats, if they were opposed to Brexit, or UKIP if they didn’t think Brexit was happening fast enough). Having said that, it might have also led to a sense of inevitability, depressing the turnout of Labour voters who thought their party didn’t stand a change. The rallying of Labour in some polls might have galvanised the Conservative vote, but also might have given some confidence to Labour votes to stay engaged.

In the end, it is interesting that the main issue with the 2017 election result was that Labour did much better than predicted, achieving one of their highest shares of the vote. There was not a huge collapse of the Conservative vote which held quite steady as a vote share. As such the polls might have helped both main parties.

Media Bias

Most newspapers and media outlets had been very positive about Theresa May and very hostile to Jeremy Corbyn and this pattern continued through the election campaign itself.

There were papers that backed Labour: of mainstream daily newspapers, only the Daily Mirror unambiguously backed Labour (although some readers would remember that they had called for Corbyn to resign the previous year). The Guardian proposed anti-Tory tactical voting, suggesting votes for Liberal Democrats and Greens in some seats, as an anti-Brexit tactic.

All the other main papers were enthusiastically Conservative. The Daily Mail included 13 pages of personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in just one edition.

There were two major terrorism incidents during the election campaign, which led to pauses in the campaigning. However, there was no pause in the newspaper coverage with the Sun in particular running stories claiming that Corbyn was a terrorist sympathiser in the wake of the Manchester bombing.

Interestingly, in past elections, personal attacks on Labour leaders undoubtedly damaged their popularity, including Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband. After particularly hostile attacks on Corbyn, his personal approval rating always seemed to increase. Either the newspapers had been so hostile for two years that nothing they threw at him in the election campaign really changed anyone’s fixed opinion, or else the public had some sympathy for Corbyn in the face of personalised attacks.

While the pro-Conservative bias in the print media is quite inescapable, quite a lot of Labour supporters criticised the BBC and other broadcasters (who are legally obliged to remain independent) for being biased too. The Labour Party themselves have suggested that one reason for Labour’s recovery was that broadcasting companies are forced to be balanced in their coverage during election time and so Labour’s spokespeople and manifesto pledges were given more attention than in the two years leading up to the election. The broadcasting companies themselves would respond that they always seek to be balanced.

This was the third election with television debates, although only the first (2010) saw the leaders of the main parties go head to head in the way the broadcasters intended. Theresa May refused to take part in that sort of debate. In one debate she sent Amber Rudd to speak on behalf of the government, and she had to field many criticisms of Theresa May’s absence. Jeremy Corbyn struggled with questions about nuclear weapons, as his personal convictions (as a long-time leading member of the CND) clashed with the party’s policy and manifesto commitment.

Where Labour had an advantage over the Conservatives was on social media. Because of the enthusiasm of young voters, there was an army of people, often entirely independent of the party, creating and sharing memes and short videos that reached huge audiences. While social media played a part in 2015 (with the Milifandom, etc.) it appears to have been a much bigger factor in the 2017 election.

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