British Election Update, Part IV: Understanding the Media

As promised, my fourth entry in this series will focus on the nature of the British media, especially the British print media. As you may or may not know, the British national print media - or "Fleet Street" - is generally partisan in a way simply not seen in the US. Virtually every British national daily has a distinct ideological cast, often to a degree much greater than the more subtle editorial lines of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Perhaps as an interesting point of comparison between the two nation's media cultures, a clone of the essentially non-ideological USA Today was launched in the mid 80s (called rather unoriginally Today) that didn't last out the decade.

Anyway, while American conservatives have been screaming about "liberal media bias" (in print and television media) for decades, perhaps left-leaning Brits should be complaining about just the opposite in their homeland. Simply put, the national print media is distinctly right wing, with a heavy Rupert Murdoch presence. The Sun, the "colorful," controvertial tabloid famous for its topless "Page 3" girls, is Murdoch's flagship in Britain. The Sun has the highest circulation of any paper in the country, and I have heard it is the highest circulating English language newspaper in the world (not sure if the second is true - more on The Sun further down). Murdoch also owns The Times, which is the oldest and (used to be) most venerable of the national dailies. Its editorial stance is center-right, and is somewhat similar to the Economist. It used to be a "broadsheet," but has recently switched to a tabloid format to boost what are dwindling sales figures. Beyond Murdoch's two papers, there are several other important right wing dailies: the Telegraph (or "Torygraph"), the "highbrow" organ of "respectable" Tory Britain (a number of people in family read it, even though they are to its left personally - a frequent phenomenon in Britain I can't really explain) owned by Murdoch wannabe, the recently convicted Conrad Black. Then there is the Daily Mail, a reactionary scandal sheet for the anti-intellectual middle classes, and the Mail's less strident (and less popular) rival the Daily Express.

So what's "left"? Well, there are (barely) three major left leaning dailies. The first, most folks here probably know, is the Guardian, the paper of record for the "chattering classes," New Labourites, the professoriate. It used to be, and still for the most part is, a strong backer of the New Labour project, even though it broke with Blair over Iraq. While the Guardian is in some ways the most influential left-leaning daily, the Mirror is the most widely read. Along with the Sun, it is one of Britain's famous "red top" tabloids. Traditionally, it was the highest selling paper in Britain until the more salacious, media-savvy Sun overtook its circulation figures in the 1970s under Murdoch's auspices. The Mirror has been and still is a strong Labour Party backer: Old Labour, New Labour, Future Labour, whatever. In recent years, it has somewhat imitated the Sun by adopting a more media-savvy, "celebrities, sensation, and football" approach, but with a left wing edge. The Mirror is what I buy when I'm in Britain. Good for reading while in transit. Finally, there is the Independent, the reason for my "barely" comment above. Started in the early 1980s as a competitor for the Guardian, it is easily the national daily with the lowest circulation and there are always rumours about its going bust. It, like the Times, has also recently switched to a tabloid format to attract more readers. Unlike the Mirror and the Guardian, the Independent is not traditionally a backer of Labour and is often a savage critic of New Labour and Blair.

Below are some very interesting statistics that outline the voting preferences of the various papers' readers, based on data compiled by the British pollster MORI:

HOW NEWSPAPER READERS VOTED IN 2001

The Sun: Labour 52%, Conservative 29%, LD 11%,  Others 8%

Daily Mail: Labour 24%, Conservative 55%, LD 17%, Other 4%

Daily Express: Labour 33%, Conservative 43%, LD 19%, Others 5%

Daily Mirror: Labour 71%, Conservative 11%, LD 13%, Others 5%

Daily Star: Labour 56%, Conservative 21%, LD 17%, Others 5%

Daily Telegraph: Labour 16%, Conservative 65%, LD 14%, Others 5%

The Times: Labour 28%, Conservative 40%, LD 26%, Others 6%

The Guardian: Labour 52%, Conservative 6%, LD 34%, Others 8%

The Independent: Labour 38%, Conservative 12%, LD 44%, Others 6%

Now, based on my above descriptions, none of the following numbers would seem to surprising, except perhaps those of The Sun. Ah, good question. Why does an essentially right-leaning paper like The Sun have so many Labour voters? Who reads the Sun? Well consider it is a tabloid, so its readers tend to be working class. But even more they tend to be younger men. Think football hooligan. Although "football hooligan" is a bit of an exaggerated description of the average Sun reader, the kind of people who read the Sun are also the kind of people who are into getting drunk and watching football. Many tend to have definite right wing tendencies (ie "law and order," macho posing, etc.). The Sun backed Thatcher in the 80s and ran a vicious campaign to prevent Labour from winning the 1992 General Election, a campaign Labour looked like it could win. While the impact of the Sun on the outcome is not known, many claim that the Sun was the reason Labour did not win that election. In part, this is key for understanding Blair's rather unhealthy relationship with Murdoch, whom he has wooed, and in return has received its backing in '97, '01, and recently, after a clever, classic Sun storyline imitating the papal selection, in '05. What this relationship - and what is clearly Blair and Labour's fear of the Sun - means in terms of policy is not certain. However, it is rumoured that Blair only received the Sun backing for the general election in 8 days time in return for guarantees from Blair that Murdoch could get the License for British Channel 5. Also, I should note the Sun - like the rest of the Murdoch media empire - strongly backed the Iraq War, and is now using Blair's backing for it as a key reason for backing Blair's re-election bid

Say what you want about Murdoch, but his ability to produce media that appeal to specific demographics is brilliant. I think Murdoch is a figure we on the left side of the 50 yard line would do well to look at more closely. Because simply put, the Sun would not be a successful paper in the United States, just as Fox News would not be a successful news channel in Britain. But they are very successful at appealing to their intended demographics: in the case of the Sun, working class men under 50; in the case of Fox News, angry white men over 50.

Next time: with the election only 8 days away, I will be turning towards predictions and prognostications in my next post. Stay tuned!

British Election Update, Part 3: Why I'm backing Labour

Now I know Jerome had a post yesterday backing the Lib Dems. And in many ways I sympathize: I'm more a Lib Dem voter in many ways than a Labour voter, whether one is talking about "New" or "Old" Labour. Nevertheless, it didn't take much for the old family and partisan loyalties to kick in: I may have said a year ago that I would back (not vote, even though I'm a British citizen, I vote in US elections) I was backing the Lib Dems or even the Tories (well maybe if Michael Portillo or Ken Clarke were their leader). But I knew for pretty much the last four months or so that I was backing Labour. Why, you may ask? Knowing that Blair's fervent support for the Iraq enabled Bush to a great extent (which I believe - and even if you believed Blair was right to back the war from the go, I think Blair did a disservice by not putting some distance between his own reason for supporting the endeavor and Bush's - perhaps more on this later).

Simply put, Britain under Labour is doing very well, and doing well not just for those at the upper end of the income ladder. With a hat tip to Jerome a Paris at Moon of Alabama, I present to you the following.

British income growth (by quintile) under Margaret Thatcher:

Now take a look at the British income growth under Tony Blair:

A bit of a difference, no? Too often, I hear that the left leaning parties that have come to power since the neo-liberal turn in the global economy that occurred in the 1970s have done nothing to stop - and in some cases, have accelerated - income inequality. I think this table clearly proves this wrong. And what's more, the generally equal rate of income (if anything, greater rate of growth for those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum) has been equaled by strong GDP growth.  Clinton's administration went along way towards demonstrating the fundamental economic superiority of left leaning (really centrist) governments in the 21st century world: Blair's administration does so to an even greater extent.

This example is indicative of the degree to which the  Labour government elected in 1997 has been good for Britain domestically - undoubtedly better than a Tory government would have been - from an economic and a civil libertarian standpoint. Beyond its positive economic record outlined above, it has created a minimum wage, has enshrined gay rights in to law, relaxed drug laws, and generally made Britain a more prosperous, more tolerant nation.

In response, the Conservatives have decided that - since they can't beat Labour on the economy - they will try to whip up the nation into xenophobic, anti-immigrant hysteria. Indeed, the Tories under Michael Howard have really become a desperate, ugly sight: their raison d'etre has become blocking immigration, removing Britain from the EU, repealing Labour's advances on gay rights and drug laws. This is not a reasonable libertarian conservative party, as it would be if Michael Portillo was leader; this is not the "one nation" Toryism of John Major; this is ugly right wing "populism" (in quotes because I believe much of this is not really popular). And it needs to beaten. Blair may or may not deserve a "bloody nose" for Iraq. But there are bigger fish to fry in this election, at least for the people who will be effected by the actual outcome (as opposed to foreign observers, whose primary prism for viewing the outcome is Blair backing Bush on Iraq).

No, the Liberal Democrats are a fine party. But they can't win this election. And whats more, a vote for the Lib Dems this time out will only have the effect of bringing in what appears to this observer to be a desperate, nasty Tory Party increasingly defined by what it doesn't like, not what it stands for, a Tory Party completely at odds with much of what the philo-Liberal Democrats in Britain and abroad stand for. The Tories need to be beaten once again, and soundly. They need to get the message that Britain will vote Tory only once they abandon their crude reactionary fantasies about the true state of the nation in the 21st century.

It is for these reasons that I'm strongly backing a Labour victory on May 5.

Liberal Democrats backer$ in the US

I just got out of DC and am over to the west coast for a week. I wish I were there Thursday though, because I'd attend the "war chest fundraising dinner in downtown Washington on April 21" (that's the news on it, here's the link to attend) that the Liberal Democrats are holding. Sure, I resonate with the Liberal Democrats being the only party in the UK that said no to invading Iraq, but it extends further than that position-- that position is an extension of a worldview which prospers such political resonation. Among what we here in the US call the cultural creatives or the secular warriors (which makes up the new netroots-based backbone of the Democratic Party), it's the transactional practice of politics by Democrats that enabled conservatives, which we revolted against within the Democatic Party. As such, I find myself with the same reaction toward Tony Blair that I hold for Joe Lieberman, and I tend to believe (as the post Iraq-invasion elections in the UK have borne out) that there are those in the UK who feel the same. Backing the invasion of Iraq was more than just a political issue-- it stems from a worldview.

I'm not predicting an electoral shift toward the LD's (the cards are stacked against that sort of thing), but it's plain to see that in terms of holding a worldview that believes in things global, inclusive, fair, and yet libertarian in principle, the Liberal Democrats of the UK share our transformational worldview.

Now, some of the more astute might say that whole statement above is too simplistic, and it is-- worldviews are very simplistic. And yet, in their simplicity, they hold the power to sway the masses-- ask Ronald Reagan (btw, I'm reading "Reagan's Revolution", about his '76 challenge to the Ford. It's good stuff for the race junkies, if from a believer's pov). What John Kerry and Al Gore lacked in '04 and '00 wasn't just a narrative. True, they could have just went with an attack-narrative, as the Republicans practice, and Begala advocated, and that might have worked. Deeper than the lack of a narrative though, the problem stems from the lack of a coherent worldview, and I firmly believe that the basis for the next political worldview is global in vision-- yes, there is a 'global test', and in the UK, the Liberal Democrats pass that test. So yea, I'd gladly chip in to send a few dollars to help elect the democratic wing in the UK.

British Election Update, II: Understanding Ideology

One of the things I have noticed in discussing British politics in these parts is the trouble people have understading the ideological configuration of the three major parties. Suffice it to say, do not try to jam Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives into an American political model. Labour is not like the DLC, a kind of centrist party in between the Conservatives on the right and the Lib Dems on the left.

To understand the difference, you have to recognize that British politics (and indeed, the politics of many other "developed" nations) evolved along class lines in a way American politics never has. Broadly speaking, every major political party in American history has been, in terms of post French/industrial revolution European politics, a liberal party. In essence, both the Democrats and Republicans find their ideological centers in differing segments of the middle class (something that is especially true today, but I would argue has been generally true throughout all of American history). In Britain, by contrast, while the Liberal Democrats, and before them, the Liberals, (always) and the Conservatives since the beginning of the 20th century have both been institutionally and ideologically centered in the middle class, the Labour Party has not. It is, and in many ways still is, a party that governs for the benefit of the working class and the poor. It is concerned with improving the lot of the lives of these groups primarily, and only secondarily with the kind of post-1960s civil liberties/lifestyle/quality of life questions that have defined and still define American politics.

* As an aside, I think this tension that is fought out in the left-leaning blogosphere - between those who advocate a more civil libertarian Democratic Party and those who advocate a more social democratic Democratic Party - is a very important tension that is in an important way elucidated by the incomprehension of the confusion the Labour Party generates for many American liberals.*

This very important ideological distinction between British and American politics (not to mention, say, American and French or Italian politics) was brought home to me when I filled out one of those what is your ideology?" type quizzes to which the diarist Welshman at Daily Kos provided a link. One answers a series of questions determing your politics as situated on a two-dimensional axis: one axis, which the tester suggests is more important in determing political affiliation in a post-Thatcherite British body politic (an emphasis I think is correct), stretches from a "rehabilitationist/internationalist" extreme on the left to a " 'hanging/flogging'/isolation" axis on the right. In other words, from a civil libertarian to a authoritarian political disposition. The secondary axis, which distributes on an "up" to "down" basis, puts more pro-free market, pro-war responders towards the graph's top and more socialist, anti-war responders towards the graph's bottom. Interestingly, I scored considerably to the left on the first axis and somewhat to the right on the second axis (note: unfortunately, I could not get the very cool graph to load, so you'll have to make do with this link - to understand the graph, realize that blue dots mean Conservative responders/voters, red dots Labour responders/voters, yellow dots Liberal Demoratic responders/voters):

Crime and punishment, internationalism

Your position on this axis is -3.9 (to the left of center)
You are likely to be fairly internationalist and rehabilitationist.

Economics, etc

Your position on this axis is 1.1 (above center)
You are likely to be slightly free-market and pro-war . . .

The Civil Libertarian/Authoritarian Axis:

By comparing your answers to the answers of the respondents in the opinion poll, we can tell you how your views compare to those of the whole population of Britain. Compared to the whole population...

4.7% are significantly to your left

13.1% have views about the same as yours

82.2% are significantly to your right

The "Free Market/Pro War Axis":

By comparing your answers to the answers of the respondents in the opinion poll, we can tell you how your views compare to those of the whole population of Britain. Compared to the whole population...

54.7% are significantly to your left

36.7% have views about the same as yours

8.6% are significantly to your right

Fascinating stuff. I would venture to guess that most of the lefty blogosphere-types, particularly those of who are more "mainstream" - i.e. Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Mark Schmitt, Josh Marshall, a good number, if not a majority, of individuals at Kos and Mydd (see this Kos thread if you don't believe me, I'm only slightly to the right of the average) - would score very similarly to me. Now, I think this potentially has a fair bit to say about the social basis of American politics in general and the future of the Democratic Party more specifically, and I think in part addresses, the Tom Frank thesis in important ways. I must say, my scores on the free market axis were slightly more"rightist" than I might have expected. However, I think this helps make my larger point about what constitutes the "left" (and how this survey considers one's stance on civil liberties and internationalism to be more indicative than economics) in 21st century politics and what are (I think, and I think it relates to Tom Frank's argument - more on this at a late date) the important consequences of this. Anyway, as a reference, here is the questions central to determining the second axis.

A person on the extreme right of this axis (in the free market/pro war direction) is likely to agree with all of the following statements (my answers in parentheses):

Britain's railways should remain in private ownership (tend to agree)

Rich people already pay enough tax (tend to disagree)

I am comfortable with the way that genetic engineering is being used in the food industry (tend to agree)

The UK was right to go to war in Iraq (tend to disagree)

Most people should take responsibility for saving enough for their retirement, rather than relying on the Government to pay a big enough pension to live on (strongly disagree)

This country should try to become more like the United States of America than like France or Germany (tend to disagree)

UPDATE: apparently, your axis position is relative to other respondants, not measured against some value neutral mid point. I think this makes the comparison between the British and American left all the more interesting.

UPDATE II: Sorry, I accidentally erased the first version of this post, along with the first 15 comments. Feel free to post again!

UK: Kennedy liked more, more polls

Here's the "baby bounce" for Kennedy in the UK election:

Kennedy was quite the trooper, going ahead with the presentation of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2 days after the birth, despite under obvious sleep-deprivation. Anyone that's been there appreciates that effort-- alot more than the contrary-indicator of the press swipes toward his tiredness. More polls? The UK Polling Report has all the goodies on the latest polls just out. Most show a re-gaining of the strong lead by Labour (except the internet polling outfit), a backslide by the Conservatives, and an inching up by Liberal Democrats. Overall though, no one knows really what to expect given the seemingly unpredictable turnout.

Diaries

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