How Cameron pulled off the biggest coup of the campaign
Everyone is busy piling into the right-wing print press for being Cameron cheerleaders, brainwashing voters into inexplicably agreeing to five more years of austerity, £12 billion of welfare cuts, the unravelling of our NHS and intense uncertainty over the union with both Scotland and the EU.
The precise impact of newspaper headlines is uncertain, but I don’t think anyone can deny that continually pumping out anti-Labour and anti-Miliband rhetoric can be anything other than electorally toxic. Yet no one seems to be addressing the impact the media had on the election result in a far more dramatic and damaging way – through the TV debates.
Take yourself back to that period of endless debate about the debates.
The initial proposal was for a 4-3-2 formula: the four main parties, as determined by OFCOM; a head to head between Cameron and Miliband; and a three-way also involving Clegg.
I won’t go back over all the arguments for and against the various formats and all the subsequent suggestions that emerged. The crucial point is this: Cameron rejected the four-way debate, on the clearly disingenuous basis that the Greens should be involved.
Everyone knew Cameron’s ulterior motive, yet the broadcasters didn’t seem to care.Suddenly we were told that a new deal was on the table which all parties had signed up to. This surprisingly involved a seven-way debate and a five-way challengers’ debate. Despite the fact that no one in England was going to be able to vote for either the SNP or Plaid Cymru, and despite the fact that OFCOM had ruled the Greens did not meet the criteria of being ‘a major party’, we were going to be treated to a seven-way scrap, followed by a five-way fight that didn’t even involve one of the two leaders who would be PM.
The impact of these debates on the election campaign was explosive. Nicola Sturgeon’s feisty public performance set up the perfect scenario for Tory strategists to get to work on. Sturgeon was cast in the role of the ‘most dangerous woman in Britain’, set to destroy the country with her scary anti-austerity policies and desire to break up the union. A Labour-SNP coalition would provoke ‘the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication’.
Constant Miliband denials of any such coalition were ignored. The threat was now real, it was flesh and blood. The narrative was set. The subsequent ‘challengers’ debate’ only served to hard-wire a Labour-SNP coalition into voters’ brains.
Cameron and his team had pulled off the biggest coup of the campaign, forcing the broadcasters to open up the debates to so many parties, crucially including the SNP. They also succeeded in opening the floodgates to the Sturgeon tsunami that helped wash away Labour in England as well as in Scotland.
Writing in the New Statesman this week, Labour’s pollster James Morris admits the SNP threat was a turning point in the election:
“Our final poll, in late April, told a different story. As focus groups showed the SNP attacks landing, we had Labour behind in the marginal seats among likely voters. The Tories successfully used the fear of Scottish influence as a way of catalyzing pre-existing doubts about Labour in a way that had not been possible earlier in the campaign.”
It was hardly a secret that Cameron wanted to avoid a head to head with Miliband at all costs – the one debate that the public most wanted to see. But the big question is – why did the broadcasters allow themselves to be played? Why did they not only fail to pull off the head to head debate but also agree to not just one but two larger debates without considering the consequences? Over-representation of smaller parties is just as distorting as under-representation.
Maybe no one, not even Tory strategists, had foreseen quite how incendiary an impact Sturgeon would have. But it was clear the SNP threat would have a damaging impact on Labour and could be used as the ultimate manifestation of Lynton Crosby’s infamous ‘wedge politics’.
And what about Labour? Did Labour strategists not see the risks? So keen were they to roll out Miliband at every available opportunity, they appear to have been blind to the consequences of him sharing a screen with Sturgeon. This was a serious Labour fail.
The Tory strategy was very helpfully aided and abetted by polls which misleadingly showed the battle for Downing Street on a knife-edge. These gave credence to the scaremongering about the near certainty of a Labour-SNP coalition. They also stoked the media’s obsessive concentration on the SNP threat and endless speculation about deals and legitimacy, squeezing out discussion of real policy issues. All of this played to the Tory tune.
Once the Tories’ simple but deadly message was created and delivered, it continued to be screamed at us until polling day. It was an effective tactic and the most influential message deployed during the entire campaign, bolstering the already deeply-ingrained Conservative refrain of economic competence and strong leadership.
Broadcasters in England should never have added the S-Factor to their schedules during the election campaign. That decision may well have helped determine the outcome of the election.
Giselle Green is communications director for the National Health Action Party and a former BBC News producer. Follow her on Twitter
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