Those of you who read Simon Wren-Lewis will understand his concept of ‘mediamacro’ – the tale of the UK’s macroeconomic situation over the last few years as reported and explained by the media. It’s a simple morality tale where the country overspent and now has to repay its debts, because just like a family budget, you have to pay off your credit card eventually. It’s easily repeated, easily expressed and also completely wrong in depicting how a national economy actually works. However, it’s a very useful story to have as the official narrative if you want to justify a certain set of ‘austerity’ policies.
What we’ve been seeing over the past few weeks of this election campaign, amplified over the past few days is what we could term ‘mediapolitics’ if it wasn’t such an ugly word. However, like mediamacro, it’s an attempt to report and explain the possible post-election situation in simple and easily-understandable terms that are completely wrong but very useful in pushing forward a certain set of political parties as the next Government.
As with mediamacro, it’s an attempt to create a framing narrative for post-election discussions. Just as mediamacro doesn’t question the assumption that all debt is bad and all debt must be paid off as soon as possible, so the political narrative is based on the idea that any Government formed post-election must be ‘stable’ and ‘legitimate’. These are useful words because they sound like they should be objective definitions, capable of being used to discriminate between different outcomes, when in terms of the way British politics and government work, they’re entirely subjective and capable of being used however you wish. It’s effectively the media accepting the Tory ‘coalition of chaos’ slogan and assuming that there would be questions over the potential stability and legitimacy of a government relying on the SNP, but not of one that needs at least the passive acquiescence of the DUP, UKIP and the Better Off Out wing of the Tories to survive.
This narrative then sets the tone for reporting on Friday and beyond, if the result is in line with the current forecasts: David Cameron will be portrayed as bravely staying in Downing Street to out together a stable government that can run the country, while Ed Miliband will be said to be cutting back room deals and threatening the stability of the country by refusing to denounce a backbench Labour MP who suggests talking to the SNP. The Tories will be portrayed as ‘winners’ for having got a handful more seats and votes and will thus possess some sort of ineffable momentum that gives them the right to form a Government, while Labour will be the sore losers, standing in the way of the will of the people.
(If there’s one lesson British politics in this election needs to learn from American politics it’s the way these sort of media narratives were used to spin the 2000 Presidential election. The right-wing media aggressively pushed the line that Bush had won Florida, and all the attempts to show otherwise were just being sore losers. Rather than fighting fire with fire, the left meekly decided to let the courts decide it, letting the right create the accepted narrative of events.)
One of the interesting things about this narrative is its flexibility. For the early part of the campaign, the message was simply about getting the Tories a majority to ensure they could be a stable and legitimate government but as the election has progressed, it’s become clear that the public are stubbornly refusing to break the ongoing opinion poll tie and so the Tories will likely not be able to stumble over the finish line by themselves. So, all the media endorsements of who to vote for aren’t a simple ‘vote Tory’ but add in a ‘vote Lib Dem in a few places as well’. As Jennie Rigg pointed out last week, no matter how gleefully you quote sections out of context, that’s not an endorsement of the Lib Dems, it’s an endorsement of the Lib Dem role in coalition now it’s become clear that the party is needed to ensure the Tories continue in Government. The Independent’s endorsement says that almost explicitly, and when even the Sun is recommending that people vote Lib Dem in seats that threaten Labour, it’s clear that something’s up.
Those endorsements aren’t about backing Liberal Democrat principles or wanting to see the party govern on its own, they’re about binding the party permanently into the right-wing bloc within the Parliamentary arithmetic to ensure Cameron can stay in office. ‘We backed you as part of the coalition, so now you have to go ahead and be part of it again’ will be the message given out on Friday and afterwards with the expectation being that negotiations won’t be over whether there can be another coalition with the Tories but merely what shape it will take and which pledges the Tories will symbolically shed to let it happen. Unless Labour can confound this narrative by winning both in terms of votes and seats, there’ll be extraordinary pressure to ensure that ‘the winner of the election’ be allowed to form a Government. It’s highly unlikely Cameron will find the press calling him ‘the squatter in Downing Street’.
And yes, Liberal Democrat members will have a say in deciding if the party goes into coalition again or not, but the same pressure of the narrative will apply here. How dare you presume to go against the winner of the election? The people have spoken! We must be in Government to ensure it’s stable and legitimate, etc etc The membership will get a vote, but they’ll only get to cast that vote once the media have decided the frame it will be cast within – do you support a stable government for the country, or do you want to bring the illegitimate losers to power and send the entire country into chaos? Besides, we’ll likely here how the Federal Executive and Conference are just arcane committees stuffed full of sandal-wearing bearded weirdos who shouldn’t be allowed to hold the country to ransom. And what’s all this about a two-thirds majority being required? That’s just some bizarre procedural foible that’s standing in the way of us having the stable government we need.
The narrative is being built and the rest of the media will fall in line with it, just as they have with mediamacro, because it makes it so much easier if you can portray elections as having clear winners and losers. Complexity – especially the idea that elections might not be about simple winners and losers – takes time to explain, the narrative wins out. We need both to challenge it and build a counter to it, or everything will be settled by the time our brains are working properly again on Saturday.