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Sunday, 24 July 2016

‘Conservative Party Future?’ Party disunity, the media and the EU Referendum

© 2016 Asian Business Publications Ltd
There were two clear sides of the 2016 EU Referendum: Leave versus Remain.

Each campaign was constituted by activists from across political divides.

However, the media largely seemed to fixate on the intra party (internal) dynamics of the British Conservative Party.

The media framed much of the EUref narrative around Conservative Party disunity, which was often portrayed as a ‘blue on blue’ civil war.

At times, this was to such an extent that the campaign appeared to be a largely Tory affair. For example, two days before the referendum, the BBC’s Daily Politics show placed significant emphasis on a segment entitled ‘Conservative Party Future?’.

This seemingly dominant theme in the media’s referendum narrative, was indeed part of a diverse mix of coverage relating to the EUref. However, at times, across the three main UK news broadcasting networks, BBC, ITN and Sky, the internal dynamics and the speculative future of the Conservative Party seemed to take a higher position in the media agenda than perhaps it ought.

This feeds into the wider normative question about what role the media should play in election campaigns and referenda. It seems pertinent to ask whether the more speculative aspects of the campaign are even necessary?

This post aims to argue that the media should focus on providing more quality factual information and expert analysis; and resist the allure of sensationalised politics and speculation, because it can often be misguided and misleading.

In the context of Conservative unity post-EUref, this article also aims to demonstrate how scholarly insights, which offer deeper understandings of political parties, could help guide media narratives in more appropriate directions.

In recent years, media speculation during campaign periods has been driven by misleading polls. The UK’s 2015 General Election is an example of where the media tended to frame its discourse around red herrings and distractions that were not necessarily rooted in accurate information.

In general, the 2015 polls suggested that Britain would vote for another coalition government. Therefore, the media narrative largely centred on what a coalition partnership might look like; and took a light approach to representing and analysing party manifestos.

However, the 2015 election outcome of a decisive Tory majority demonstrates that the media were overly guided by misleading polls that resulted in misguided coverage and agendas.

Similarly, in the 2016 EUref, the polls generally and incorrectly predicted a Remain vote. Therefore, the media tended to focus on a narrative about what happens to a deeply divided Conservative Party post-EUref, which was set within the assumption that there would be a continuance of the status quo – yet again, a misguided frame and context.

On 23 June, 2016, the UK voted to Leave the EU. Following the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, the media focus shifted sharply away from Conservative Party disunity to a more credible narrative of ‘meltdown’ in the British Labour Party; and a disunited Britain, which was based on the actual EUref results that highlighted contrasting outcomes in different regions of the UK.

Aside from misleading polls, why were the media’s pre-EUref assumptions about divisions in the Conservative Party so misguided? And how can scholarly insights provide more credible bases for the contexts in which the media root their assumptions?

This post can merely touch on and present these questions for deeper and further scholarly work.

But one possible approach to improving journalistic understandings of political contexts would be for the media to consult more closely with scholars of political parties. For example, when questioning the survival of the Conservative Party, it ought to be placed in the context of its 350+ year history as the oldest extant, and arguably most successful, political party in Western democracy.

Among politics scholars, the party is known for its pragmatism and ability to adapt, change and endure through wider social, political and cultural changes. Historian Richard Cockett likens the Conservative Party to a ‘Darwinian’ organism that utilises the characteristic of adaptability to ensure its own survival.

Across its long history, the party’s central characteristic of pragmatism has tended to trump ideological party divides and encourage a display of party unity, which is a factor that political scholars generally recognise to be key in strengthening parties’ parliamentary election chances.

In contrast, the Labour Party, which historically tends to be more characterised by a commitment to its ideologies, is comparatively less inclined to take pragmatic steps to preserve party unity.

The aftermath of the EUref is one such example.

Cameron’s pragmatic post-EU resignation led to at least the appearance of a rebound in Conservative Party unity. In terms of the post-EUref media narrative, the blue on blue civil war evaporated and was replaced with a more accurate portrayal of the divisions in the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s fractures are being driven by much wider and deeper ideological divisions than those in the Conservative Party, which has been historically focused on Britain’s membership to the EU, as a single issue.

Therefore, it could be argued that the British media’s pre-EUref speculation and analysis would have been better placed if focused on the future of the Labour Party rather than that of the Conservatives.

Certainly, greater balance in terms of the political narratives portrayed by the media seems an appropriate course to take in future referenda and election campaigns. Speculative viewpoints should constitute minor aspects of a mix of coverage. Indeed, they offer valuable perspectives when tempered as part of a well-informed debate, amid quality information.

However, speculative discourse can play an unhelpful and misleading role when it comes to dominate wider campaign narratives. In referenda and election campaigns, the central role of the media ought to be to facilitate the electorate’s access to quality information and expert analyses.

Stronger relationships and knowledge exchange activities between media practitioners, academics and experts during campaign periods could contribute to more credible coverage of politics in Britain.