It’s a British phenomenon which always becomes more evident at election time: Britain is essentially a pretty liberal country with a pretty conservative press.
To judge from the partisanship of Fleet Street alone, a foreign observer would have to deduce that if the people who buy national newspapers are politically in tune with their chosen titles, the UK was decidedly right of centre.
In circulation terms, loosely calculated, about 72% of UK daily newspapers are right of centre (Sun, Times, Mail, Express, Star), about 10% are in the centre (Independent, FT, Evening Standard – I’m counting their distribution as circulation) and only 18% are left of centre (Guardian, Mirror).
The way Britain votes, however, is significantly different.
Taking the voting share of the eight elections since 1979, adding them together and dividing by eight, an average result has been:
CON – 37.7%
LAB – 34.7%
LIB/SNP – 19.9%
Nats (SNP/PC) – 2.1%
Others – 5.5%
On the basis that the Nationalists are predominantly left of centre voters and that the “Others” – principally the Northern Irish parties would, if combined with the Nats, cancel each other out, we can draw the conclusion that the UK is, in unscientific terms, 58.4% liberal and 41.6% conservative.
But does press support make any difference?
Famously, the Sun claimed to have won the 1992 election – and something certainly seems to have happened in the last 100 days before the final poll, according to this excellent article from May2015.com.
Conservative support rose from about 38 per cent to about 43 per cent while Labour’s share crashed from 44 to 35, the second largest fall it has experienced in the course of an election campaign in the past 40 years.
That might suggest that powerful lobbying by the press – which was particularly hard on Neil Kinnock’s party that year – had a serious effect.
But what was the largest fall in Labour’s support during a campaign in the last four decades? It was five years later for the Tony Blair landslide, a result that came despite polls that started at LAB 54 CON 31 LD 12 changing to LAB 44 CON 31 LD 17.
Why was that significant? Well, in that year, the Sun was campaigning FOR Labour and most of the traditionally conservative press were either following suit or reluctantly backing the Tories.
So it’s hard to argue that the press has any claim to influence the outcome of British general elections.
In fact, the continued dislocation between the political colour of newspapers bought by Brits and the way those same people vote in the only poll that really matters suggests that Fleet Street neither leads nor follows its customers.