Does it matter if The Sun backs the Tories?

suncover.jpg The Sun is shining on the Tories this morning, with the announcement by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid that it will back the party at the next general election for the first time since 1992. Indeed, so proud was the rag paper of its announcement that they took the trouble to email Lib Dem Voice (twice) to let us know all about it – you see how much we matter to them!

The Sun’s endorsement of the Tories in not full-throated.

Most of its leader article is devoted to setting out the ways in which Labour has failed, rather than promoting the Tories’ policies. When the paper does turn its attention to the Tories, its backing is cautious:

… we believe David Cameron should lead [the next government]. Between now and the election Cameron’s Conservatives must earn voters’ trust by setting out their promising policies in detail. If elected, Cameron must use the same energy and determination with which he reinvigorated the Tory Party to breathe new life into Britain.

That means genuine, radical change to encourage self-improvers, not wasting time on internal party wrangling or pandering to the forces of political correctness. It also means an honesty and transparency of Government that we have not seen for years.

We are still a great people and, put to the test, will respond to the challenges we face. The Sun believes – and prays – that the Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain.

In 1997, of course, The Sun’s support was even more conditional: ‘The Sun Backs Blair’ – their support was limited to the man rather than to the party. So it seems in 2009, with the paper seemingly investing its support more in Mr Cameron than the Tory party as a whole.

All of which is intersting for observers of politics and the media. The question being asked is, does any of this matter? Are readers influenced one jot by the endorsements of the papers they read? And anyway, don’t papers follow what their readers are telling them, rather than readers follow what their papers are telling them?

It’s notable, for example, that in Scotland – where the Tory recovery in the polls has been at best sluggish – the editor of the Scottish Sun is declining to follow the English paper’s lead. He may say he is “yet to be convinced” by Mr Cameron – more likely, he’s yet to be convinced it won’t damage the sales of his paper in a nation where the Tory brand is still toxic.

There are two reasons it does still matter to political parties who newspapers choose to endorse:

1) Credibility – this would be especially the case for the Lib Dems, as the party still has to conquer the view that a vote for the party is a wasted vote. If the party were to be endorsed by, say, the Independent and the Guardian (as happened in this year’s Euro elections – and much good it did us!) you can bet those endorsements would appear prominently on the party’s target mail to counter the idea the party doesn’t matter when choosing the next government.

2) The ‘drip-drip’ effect – more important than an endorsement in one editorial is the paper’s attitude to a party throughout the year. What helped sink Neil Kinnock in 1992 was not The Sun’s memorable light-bulb front-page on polling day itself, but the continual undermining of his leadership qualities in the paper’s political coverage in the years beforehand. Likewise for the Lib Dems, one editorial in the Indy/Guardian is of negligible value; but if the party receives decent coverage for its policies and leadership throughout the year, this is likely to have an impact on readers.

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  • Foregone Conclusion 30th Sep '09 - 10:23am

    It was interesting to hear the smug pretence of the Sun Political Editor on The World Tonight that he had decided AFTER Brown’s speech to remove their endorsement. This sounded silly at the time, but the fact they have produced a bumper ‘reasons to hate Labour’ wallchart (I kid you not) makes this sound even more suspect.

  • Mark Williams 30th Sep '09 - 10:26am

    This is nothing to do with which party the editor prefers, but the party preferred by its readers, hence the position of the Sun in Scotland.

  • I would be rather ammussed if Labour now decided it was time to get through some laws on making owners of big media groups be domicilled in the EU.

  • The Conservatives passed two tests:
    1. They have decent support in the Sun reader demographic;
    2. They have promised a light regulatory regime for Murdoch and media monopolies.

  • The press seem to me to have more power if they are continuously negative about a political leader rather then positively endorsing a political party or leader.

    Kinnock and Labour had real problems when they were seen at war with the Sun. Ming Campbell found his leadership completely derailed by the British media’s obsession with his age.

    The timing of the announcement is also interesting as it rained all over any positive news stories that would have come out of the Labour conference and Brown’s speech. The last thing Labour should do now is fight back.

  • I wonder, though, if some in the Labour party might actually be a bit relieved that the Sun isn’t backing them now? There always seemed to be a bit of unease about them when Blair was sucking up to Murdoch, but now that the elephant has left the room they might feel a bit more free to introduce policy which Trevor Kavanagh doesn’t like. As for Scotland, the Sun go for a policy of supporting other parties where they are most likely to defeat Labour, which would benefit us – or they could go for all-out support for the SNP, which they have done in the past, to try to maximise the damage to Labour.

    On the whole though, of more significance to Labour would be if the Guardian fails to support it at the election. If that happens – and I don’t think it’s impossible – then they might as well just pack up and go home, if they haven’t already.

  • Simon Titley 30th Sep '09 - 12:45pm

    The Sun’s change will probably make no difference – see “Sun’s circulation down 35% from mid-1990s peak” at:

    And note that the Scottish edition of the Sun has not followed suit!

  • The sun had also emailed the story to, it seems that the Sun has woken up to the influence of political blogs. An astute move.

    I would have thought that this was the best chance the Lib Dems will ever have of getting a clear endorsement from the Observer/Guardian/Independent. Your top brass should be working hard to try and get this. As Stephen says it would be a massive boos to your credibility and profile.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 30th Sep '09 - 4:10pm

    The half throated change of endorsement of the Sun to the Tories is very significant as it has 10 million daily readers and the largest number of `swing’ or `floating’ voters, in the next General Election.

    It will also have by definition of readership a high number of L/D supporters who do not want either the Tories or Labour in next time and believe we can win under Nick Clegg.

    The fact that Nick Clegg has led the campaign for a better deal for the armed servicemen and women and especially the citizenship rights of the Gurkhas, will also be endorsed by a good number of `Sun’ readers..

  • Terry Gilbert 30th Sep '09 - 6:15pm

    Sun circulation – 2.9m (7.9m readers)
    Guardian circulation – 358,000
    Source: admittedly wikipedia, and not strictly comparable as they are for different periods. This is why The Sun is important – but its is not as important as it was in 1992 – it’s circulation peaked in 1994 at over 4.8m (when they cut the price to 10p).

  • Herbert Brown 30th Sep '09 - 6:31pm

    “The fact that Nick Clegg has led the campaign for a better deal for the armed servicemen and women and especially the citizenship rights of the Gurkhas, will also be endorsed by a good number of `Sun’ readers..”

    To say nothing of his amorous exploits …

  • Dirty Diggers endorsement of Tories not complete because,
    1) He has not yet got positive commitments out of them to hatchet job the BBC and other DD friendly policies.

    2) Keep Cameron on a tight rein – Don’t want him getting ideas above his station!

  • Let’s be under no illusions; this is not a Sun decision but one from the organ grinder Murdoch. So the questions start to come in. Just what has David Cameron promised him about;

    1. destroying the BBC
    2. dropping the requirement for balance so Murdoch can convert Sky to a UK Fox channel
    3. no attacks on foreign ownership of the media (so Lord Ashcroft’s safe too)
    4. weakening Offcom further
    5. dropping obstacles to Murdoch further extending News International’s reach into terrestrial TV?

    In Scotland, just to emphasise the depth of principle this switch of alleigance shows, for some reason the Sun isn’t supporting the Tories.

    No doubt we shall see if the Conservatives get a majority ‘wot the Sun gave them’. Still there’s one small benefit; this won’t help the Tories in Merseyside

  • Richard T- I would suggest it is unlikely that DC promised them anything, he doesn’t need to buy the Sun (literally or metaphorically), it always backs the winner. Also I think you are confusing Merseyside for Liverpool, the Conservatives will probably pick up seats like Wirral West and South, with a good chance in Sefton and Southport.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '09 - 2:00pm

    The Sun is a very clever paper. It manages to package a fair amount of political propaganda in its “just for fun” image.

    When the Sun was previously supporting the Tories, it was often noted that a high proportion of its readership believed it to be a “Labour paper” and that was said proved its political message wasn’t getting through. Quite the contrary – it proved how successfully it was getting through. Its readership believed it was a “Labour paper” while absorbing its Tory politics, propaganda is the most successful when those who read it don’t realise it’s propaganda. I suspect that what was happening was that quite a lot of its readers thought of themselves as “Labour people” so when they saw what they considered a “Labour paper” saying “Vote Conservative” it led them to believe that Labour-minded people were going Conservative because the Labour Party was so bad.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '09 - 4:41pm

    On whether the endorsement counts, well during my time as a councillor for a classic white working class ward in London, the Sun was by far the most widely read paper in the ward. You could tell, because the council used a system of open recycling boxes, and you could see what paper they had left out. There were more copies of the Sun than all the other national newspapers put together. I am surprised that the Mirror still has such a high circulation figure, because I rarely saw a Mirror left there. The occasional Mail and Express, never any of the qualities.

    The influence is quite subtle, as I said it works because of that, but over the years it’s enough to feed in attitudes such as an over-concern with the influence of the EU, a belief that an economy based on everyone borrowing money to sell houses to each other was fine, class-based antipathy directed towards liberal elite types and away from business elite types, that politicians are basically bad people and their influence should be minimised, that instant pleasures are the only things that really matter in life, and that politics in this country is Labour v. Conservative. Liberal Democrats are rarely mentioned in the Sun, usually it’s only when a laugh can be got out of them, and they are portrayed as an obscure lunatic fringe embodying everything a Sun reader is directed to despise. Even our loyal voters in the ward would often say “well I vote for you in council elections, because I like what you do round here, but I don’t like what your party stand for nationally, I wouldn’t vote for you in a general election”. I think the influence of the Sun played a fairly big part in the difficulty we experienced in converting a local vote to a national vote.

    The Sun doesn’t take its readers where they’re not already going, but it clears the path for them and sets the tone of the destination. It wouldn’t have endorsed Labour in 1997 if Labour had remained the party it was in the 1980s even if voters were swinging that way. Its endorsement for Labour was always of a “yes but …” type, the “but” being that it would prefer a more anti-EU stance, and that Labour had too many lefty/liberals to be really trusted. It wouldn’t be endorsing the Tories now if there wasn’t a sufficient pendulum swing back to them.

    Simon Titley is right in noting that the influence of the Sun is less now because like all newspapers it has a lower circulation. Also, I suspect that if we looked at copies of the Sun from back in the 1980s,we’d find them very serious and political compared to now. Politics has been increasingly sidelined in our culture, news of stars and celebrities dominates, serious discussion of political issues is replaced by discussion of personalities which follows the style of reporting stars and celebrities.

    This does leave an opportunity which we can fill. People still want to know about the world around them, and can get into political discussion if it’s put in a way that neither patronises them nor goes over their heads. If anything, I find a thirst for decent political discussion, because they aren’t get it from any other source. There is this huge feeling, following the economic crash, that things have gone wrong, that a lot of what people were told by the political/business/media was rubbish, and that we have been conned into ignoring deep political issues in order to live the “fun, fun, fun” life of the Soaraway Sun etc but that has hit a crunch. We can fill the gap the media have left, tell people what was really happening, point them to our vision of a way forward, but do it in a way that is meant to be informative not shallow “vote for us”. That was what we started doing with “Focus”, we led into it by starting with the immediate surrounds and got people to think of politics in a different way by that means. We never took it forward as we should have done, because along came the SDP, told us Liberals we were sleepy people doing nothing, and that their glossy leader-oriented politics was what would win the vote. We were too busy fighting off that to develop Focus, and it got stuck as an election-winning technique and developed in completely the wrong direction – too much “vote for us, we’ll solve your problems” and not enough (or none) of “here’s what you really need to know and you can use it to get together and solve your own problems”.

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