Media or Manifesto?

Where does the true influence behind voting behaviour lie and what was the true force behind the 1997 election result? "Lacking stable social and partisan anchors, voters may become more open to the influence of campaign factors: valuations of the governments record, particularly on the economy, preferences about Party policies, perceptions of party and leadership images, and the way all of these factors are communicated to the public. "1 The key parts of this theory are "economy", "policies", "images", and "communicated to the public".

The 1997 election saw a Conservative party who had failed the economy, go up against new and more popular middle ground policies of the Labour Party, who had a leader with a fresh and enthusiastic image. These are all factors that could be considered under the manifesto. "Communicated to the public", however, is all to do with the media. The question I want to answer is which one had the greatest impact. The biggest post war victory was won by Labour in 1997, with a 179 vote majority.

This huge landslide caused conflicts between theorists as to why. The two key arguments are that this was the influence of the much more reasoned and stable manifesto that "New Labour" put forward against the untrustworthy 'economy destroyers' of the Conservative party or that it was the huge switch in support from right to left from the media. Blair's transition of the party into "New Labour"2 saw a major change in policy, moving towards the middle, much like Bill Clinton did for the Democratic Party the same year.

In 1992, Neil Kinnock led a radical campaign, and as opposition to an increasingly unpopular Conservative party, Labour were favourates to win the general election3. However, the Conservatives still came through as the winners. One theory behind this is that though people had lost faith in the Conservatives, they still did not want to shift their vote so far to the left as to vote labour, and gave indifferent votes in the polls. While a number of people may have said they would not vote Conservative, they just could not bring themselves to vote Labour.

Interestingly, this was the highest turnout in any general election for 18 years, with 77% of the electorate voting, a total only beaten once in post-war times. This may have been due to anti-party voters, who care more about one party not-winning the election than the one they vote for being successful. Butler and Kavanagh (1992) claim that anti party and tactical voting reduced the Conservative majority by half. 4 This shows us that people voted on the grounds of government performance, and suggests that the manifestos of both parties had significant impact on the way people voted.

The Conservatives followed this election victory with a reign in government tarnished with sleaze and corruption. The media responded with damaging results to the party. The deliberate concealment of his connections with Mohamed Al Fayed by Neil Hamilton was heavily scrutinized by left wing newspapers such as the Guardian and the Mirror, and this led to his resignation, one encouraged by party leader John Major. MPs during the 92-97 period were said to be taking up to i?? 1000 from outside organizations for every question they asked in parliament on their behalf.

5 However, though the accusations of sleaze were sensationalized by the media, the imprisonment of Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, still in jail for perjury, shows the seriousness of the conservative collapse. The scandals of the Conservative party caused a general dislike among the media and the public. Blair's reaction to this was to allow the media to criticise Major and his party while using only positive campaigning for the Labour party. The media portrayed his character as "wimpish"6, and the public responded as if it were political fact.

This is an example of parties using the media, and suggests that the power lies with the parties, and therefore their manifestos. In 1994 the Labour party leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair beat John Prescott and Margaret Beckett in the subsequent leadership election, and became leader of the opposition. He was known for his phrase, "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"7, and his youthful enthusiasm quickly gained him popularity amongst the electorate.

Though he was outspoken on his liberal views on capital punishment and the age of gay consent, his general position was far more central. In the manifesto, Blair promised to abolish Clause IV of the Labour Constitution, which had committed the party to clear socialist goals, and create a new one that reflected some elements of Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. Blair moved the party further to the right, adopting policies which broke with Labour's traditional and somewhat old fashioned style in an attempt to increase the party's appeal to "middle England".

8 It worked. The 1992 election was Labour's 4th consecutive defeat, and Blair's new position on the political spectrum, dubbed "the third way"9, was the welcome change that saw them win their biggest ever majority in the house of commons, with 419 seats, a majority of 179. Labour lost an election they were expected to win to a party under criticism from even its own supporters, and then set election winning records 5 years later with new policy and general party ideology. This would suggest that manifesto is key to the way the electorate votes.

The Sun is the country's biggest selling newspaper, with a circulation of 3. 3 million. In 1992, they were, as they traditionally always had been, in favour of the Conservative party. The morning of the general election that Neil Kinnock had been expected to win, the Sun released the headline "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". Two days after the shock Conservative win The Sun was so convinced its front page had swung the result they published the new headline, "It's The Sun Wot Won It".

10 The paper's pride in twisting the fate of UK politics shows the relentless force of the media. It is not just the Sun however, and though they have supported the winning party in all but 3 elections in the past 50 years, Labour have never won an election when its press share was more than 18% behind the Conservatives. 11 The sun switched support to Labour on 18 March 1997, with the front page headline "THE SUN BACKS BLAIR". This switch marked the first time ever in which the Labour party had the support of most of the national daily newspapers.

In 1992, it was 70% to 27% in favour of the Conservatives, in a time where 80% of the working class read tabloids, and most Labour supporters were exposed to a Tory newspaper. From that day in March it increased to 72% in favour of Labour to just 28% for Conservative. 12 Six weeks later, Labour claimed their landslide general election victory. This does not however, prove that the electorate were influenced by the Sun's switch. It is just as likely that the Sun were influenced by the electorate's switch.

Nicholas Jones claims that, "As readers we tend to buy the newspaper which suits our political thinking". Rupert Murdoch knows this, and his switch of support to Labour may have not so much carried the electorate, but simply been a case of jumping on the bandwagon with them. However it cannot be denied that Blair targeted the Sun as a key point to securing the election, and "courted" it for some time with exclusive interviews and columns.

Rupert Murdoch and the Sun followed with support, claiming Blair was "the breath of fresh air this great country needs"13, and that his counterparts, John Major and the Conservatives, were "tired, divided and rudderless". It is clear, judging by Blair's enthusiasm in gaining the support of the Sun, that even the great political minds believe the media holds important influence, and perhaps that time spent focussing on the media is time that could be better spent focussing on the electorate. Blair even thanked the sun after victory for its "magnificent support which really did make the difference".

14 One argument against this is that Blair was simply rousing as much support as he could for a vital election, cleverly targetting the electorate indirectly through the country's greatest media outlet. However, 'rousing support' can quickly be considered as 'corruptly buying support'15, when you look at what else Blair did to win over the Sun. Murdoch refused to support a party that would want to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and Blair serviced him this wish by not joining it, a decision with large consequences to the nation.

To base such a decision on the wants of one man is unfair and undemocratic, and is sure evidence that the media holds too much power. There is also number of irrational factors involved in voting behaviour. The electorate have always based voting on factors of class, gender, race, religion, and even political geography. However, there is general agreement that partisan dealignment has been taking place since the 1970s, with the two main parties share of the votes decreasing from 90%+ to just 72% in 200116.

Denver (1994) reported that in 1964, 48% of conservatives and 51% of Labour voters identified very strongly with their party. By 1992 it had declined to 21% and 24% respectivly. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, a move away from the class voting trend as class barriers break down. This is an example of British Politics developing with British culture, and the freedom of not being considered to be of a certain class creates the ability to vote just as freely. The second is education.

As the electorate becomes more intelligent, it is better qualified to make rational political decisions, and is therefore less likely to make an irrational attachment to a party. Both these factors allow the electorate to vote based on two more reasons behind partisan dealignment. The development of new technology, thus the media, and ideological disjuncture, thus the manifestos of parties. This creates more focus in media and manifesto as electorate no longer classify themselves in the same way.

The events that entailed around the 1997 election make it clear that media and manifesto both play a role in our political system. However, though media has more of the limelight, and was claimed so strongly to have swung the 97 election, its role is not to do with voting behaviour. The electorate cried out for a Tony Blair, and when he came with his "third way", and formed "new labour", they got what they wanted. The media followed suit and though its support may have swung in favour of Labour behind the scenes, the new face of the Sun was created in order to appeal to its consumers.

Murdoch's influence on policies was as a result of Blair's desire for popularity among 'Middle England' in general, not as a desperate attempt to win the election. However, though I've come to this conclusion, I still believe the media play a big role in UK politics. Media have a similar effect on politics as pressure groups; they set the agenda and seek to influence the policies of parties. The greatest influence the media have in politics is influencing parties to alter their policies to support their, and the electorate's popular opinion.

However, they also seek to gain profit and this can alter their presentations of the parties, through sensationalisation. Media can manipulate their reports on policies and ideologies but they cannot invent them; there has to be an element of truth in all articles and columns. This, along with the fact that the media are attempting to reflect the views of the electorate, mean that it is the performance of the parties, the ideologies they support, and the manifestos they put forward that influence voting behaviour.


1) 'Norris et al' 1999:7



4) Bentley, Dobson, Dorey, Roberts – British Politics in Focus P110

5) Kavanagh, Richards, Smith, Geddes – British Politics P499



8) The Third Way: Renewal of Social Democracy by Anthony Giddens


10) Linton 1996

11) Kavanagh, Richards, Smith, Geddes – British Politics P507


13) Scammel & Harrop 1997, pp. 160, 183


15) Bentley, Dobson, Dorey, Roberts – British Politics in Focus P98

16) Budge, Crew, McKay, Newton – The New British Politics

1 'Norris et al' 1999:7



4 Bentley, Dobson, Dorey, Roberts – British Politics in Focus P110

5 Budge, Crew, McKay, Newton – The New British Politics

6 Kavanagh, Richards, Smith, Geddes – British Politics P499



9 The Third Way: Renewal of Social Democracy by Anthony Giddens


11 Linton 1996

12 Kavanagh, Richards, Smith, Geddes – British Politics P507


14 Scammel & Harrop 1997, pp. 160, 183


16 Bentley, Dobson, Dorey, Roberts – British Politics in Focus P98