Did the broadcasters open the floodgates to a Sturgeon tsunami?

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 succeed​ed in opening the floodgates to the Sturgeon tsunami that helped wash away Labour in England as well as in Scotland.

Wr​iting 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

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

23 Responses to “Did the broadcasters open the floodgates to a Sturgeon tsunami?”

  1. Margaret Tombs

    The Labour party want to blame Scotland and the SNP for their loss in the election, that’s nonsense. Even if every constituency in Scotland was won by Labour there would still have been a Conservative majority. Once again Scotland is being ruled by a Tory government that we did not elect and cannot control even if the SNP did ally itself with Labour.
    The shame is with the Labour party for allying itself with the Tories during the Independence Referendum and swinging the vote by colluding with their scaremongering and confusion tactics. See how they are rewarded now.

  2. Lesley1

    The SNP in Scotland was not the problem but the effect of the debates on ENGLISH marginals. I am sure that Sturgeon trying to publically press Miliband into a deal did a lot of damage in England. This over reaching ‘we will change England too,’ message left both England and Scotland with a Tory government. At the same time she was happy to jump on the anti-Labour ‘Red Tories’ narrative in the same programmes.There is no reflection on this, other than don’t blame us. Sturgeon got carried away
    in the debates, backed up by sympathetic minor parties, helping the Tories to make a pincer movement in ENGLAND. Most Labour supporters would have be happy with SNP in Scotland, but the push and push it the debates played straight into the Tory’s hands

  3. JustAnotherNumber

    I suspect there are many, many people in English marginals, who voted Tory, gradually waking up with abject horror at the result of their actions.
    “Wait, wait!” They’ll be pleading. “I didn’t want to abolish the human rights act, or allow more fracking, or more privatisation of the NHS, or dismantling of worker’s rights, or more tax breaks for the wealthy, or leave the EU, or see more attacks on support for the vulnerable, or an end to state education!” They’ll cry. “I was just terrified about the damned Scots having a say in parliament!”

  4. Gerschwin

    Yes, it was all down to the media because everyone is too dim to know better and will vote Lemming like for the Tories if the media tell them to do so, only the enlightened few understand the truth and vote Labour.

    Please keep thinking like this and I can enjoy a Tory government for the rest of my life – do keep it up. Excellent work. Thank you.

  5. DRbilderburg

    When Labour became the face of the no campaign backed by all the MSM, many people myself included could see disaster heading Labours way, the best way to politically commit suicide in Scotland is be a Tory and to a Man/Woman Labour were, they bullied, threatened , conned, and loved every minute of it

    If they had kept their dignity by just saying we thank the Scottish people for their unwavering support for Labour through the good and the bad years, but we think you’d be better off in the union, but we will stand by Scotland if they vote for independence, and if we gain power we will do what we can to ease the transition. You’d be looking at some Labour seats lost, not virtually every single one, and Sturgeon no doubt would have taken most of the seats but their would have been a Labour presence and the whole SNP scare story would have been considerably watered down

  6. Gerschwin

    No, I’m pretty good with all of those things.

  7. Alister Rutherford

    This is a deeply disappointing article, which just confirms that Labour are still stuck in a navel gazing hole of gigantic proportions. Let’s blame anyone and everyone, except of course ourselves. If Labour in England can be so undone by the prospect of working with SNP MPs then they are truly lost. Interesting that this anti SNP line did not seem to have much effect in Wales. Scotland voted to stay in the Union and we expect the people we choose to elect as our MPs to be respected in the same way as other MPs. Note that Labour has never had any problem working with the SDLP, another party that wants to leave the UK. Labour failed in England and blaming the SNP or the broadcasters will only ensure that you lose again in five years time. Well past time for you to start looking at your own failures.

  8. stevep

    If the TV companies who broadcast the various debates were concerned with impartiality they would have placed an empty lectern with David Cameron`s name on it to symbolise his refusal to engage in debate on anything other than his own terms.

  9. Cole

    Actually you’re probably right. Most of the people who read the Mail are already Tories – or just read it for the celeb stuff and ignore the loopy politics. I doubt if all their weird hysteria actually influences many people. The editor is clearly deranged.

  10. GiselleG7

    Hi Alister

    1. I don’t speak for the Labour Party, am just a commentator here.

    2. This is not about who Labour should appeal to or work with. Many Labour supporters were probably delighted at the prospect of a potential deal with the SNP.

    3. This is about scaring off potential Labour voters who didn’t like the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition. You need to look at it from that perspective, not your own. There does appear to be evidence that this was an issue in deterring them.

    4. This is one aspect that looks at the broadcasters’ role in Labour’s defeat. I agree there are many other ways in which Labour have themselves to blame. See my blog here: https://gisellegreen7.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/why-did-labour-sink-like-a-stone-metaphor-warning/

  11. GiselleG7

    Obviously I agree with you!

  12. Alister Rutherford

    Thank you for the reply. I agree that the Tories used the SNP as a scare tactic in England. The question is why did Labour do nothing to counter it? Labour were just as keen to portray the SNP as a foreign, hostile hoard. Ed Miliband made it very clear he wanted nothing to do them and wouldn’t even talk with them. Why? Are we some kind of second class citizens? It is a bit late in the day for Labour to complain of scare tactics when they were only to happy to use them in Scotland, both in this election – vote SNP and you let the Tories in, and during the referendum campaign. As regards your central point, which I take to be that the broadcasters should not have allowed the SNP and others to appear alongside Labour and the Tories. Why not? This was a UK general election and the people of England deserve to know what parties in other parts of the UK are proposing and how Labour and the Tories would respond in the event of a hung parliament. I see no reason why I should look at things primarily from a Labour vs Tory perspective in England. There are serious issues to be debated about TV and radio coverage of UK elections given that we now have effectively four different political systems, with very different issues and parties in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. I read your blog post and agree with just about everything in it. Thanks again for taking the time to respond. Much appreciated.

  13. madasafish

    Wrong. There are FACTS about Daily Mail Readers. Well as far as YouGov polls go:-)

    “According to Yougov’s analysis (full table below), Conservative support among the three Tory press stalwarts in April 2015 was:

    Daily Mail: 56 per cent

    The Sun: 42 per cent

    Daily Telegraph: 64 per cent”


    The editor is so deranged it is the UK’s most profitable newspaper group.

  14. Gerschwin

    I’ll take your word for it Cole – I’ve never read it.

  15. Jim Bennett

    Giselle, could I ask a couple of questions?
    – is it your genuine belief that the “Scottish” threat was the primary reason for Labour’s failure?
    – why did Labour lose so badly in Scotland?

  16. Alasdair Macdonald

    Well said, Mr Rutherford, in both responses.
    Ms Green’s article took as axiomatic that the SNP was, per se, bad, as do such smugly self-proclaimed ‘free thinking’ organs like the Guardian, Observer and New Statesman. She might well have indicated a more nuanced understanding in her blog, and, if that is the case her article here was shoddily written or written in a way that would suit the editor’s purpose.

  17. GiselleG7

    Again, you are missing the point. What you or I think about the SNP is irrelevant. The fact is that the Tories used it as a wedge to scare people. Campaigners on the ground (and political observers) have said it WAS an issue that was deterring people from voting Labour. Whether people were misguided is a totally different issue.

  18. GiselleG7

    1. No it wasn’t the primary threat. But it was used to very good effect by the Tories and may have tipped the balance. We’ll never really know unless there is polling done.. but will we trust the polling?! You can read my blog here for other reasons (in a nutshell) why Labour lost: https://gisellegreen7.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/why-did-labour-sink-like-a-stone-metaphor-warning/
    2. They lost badly in Scotland cos:
    a. worked with the Tories over the referendum (MUST avoid a repeat over EU ref)
    b. seen as having Tory-lite austerity policies

  19. MMcGuire

    What polices where New Labour pushing that would make voters go and vote Labour in mass? Labours major issues with reflecting on its own faults for its GE loss, is visible to all but hard wired Labour supporters. I’d avoid turning this into some kind of pretzel thinking on English Labours failure in England and look at the main ones. Blaming the SNP is the most bizarre read I’ve had in a long time. The success in Scotland of the SNP is apparent to all but the blind.

  20. Jim Bennett

    Thanks Giselle, it’s really good that you’ve actively participated in the discussion as well as supplying the original article. Thank you!

  21. GiselleG7

    Thanks. It’s important to debate, not just for people to throw angry comments around!

  22. Alasdair Macdonald

    Thank you for responding. Apologies for the time lag.
    I am not missing the point. Like Mr Rutherford, Ithink the problem was of Labour’s own making. However, the fact that it was used effectively by the Tories is being used by Scottish Labour to absolve themselves from responsibility for their wipeout and to blame the electorate for voting in such numbers for the SNP. Sadly, this is par for the course for Scottish Labour and has been the case since they lost in 2007. While I accept your point that what you (and I) think about the SNP is irrelevant in this context, what I was saying is that I felt that I detected a distaste for the SNP in the tone of your piece. I think that a similar visceral abhorrence for a straw man concept of ‘nationalism’ in so many self =proclaimed progressive people like Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee ignores the change which Mr Salmond began to bring to the SNP more than 20 years ago and which has proved attractive to large numbers of former Labour voters – as I am, with respect to the interests served by Westminster/Whitehall. Never mind Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales most of England, including the majority in London are being disempowered by this clique.

  23. uglyfatbloke

    Also…a strong tradition of nepotism, incompetence, corruption, bullying and arrogance. Scottish people simply got fed up with it. It’s been a long, slow smoulder that eventually spluttered into a fire. Plenty of people have seen it coming for years and have been ignored or shouted down.

Leave a Reply