Like a dog returning to its vomit, the news that ‘The Sun’ has switched from Labour to the Conservatives shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. There is, however, significant totemic value in the move and spite in the timing, coming as it does hours after a much better-than-usual speech from a battle-scarred Gordon Brown. Its already been referred to as the final nail in the coffin, conferring huge power on this graceless tabloid.
1997 seems like an age ago; and in political terms, it was. The New Labour inner sanctum spent much of the 1990s sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and News International. There were some sound electoral reasons for doing this; Murdoch, like some latter day William Randolph Hearst had successfully demonised Neil Kinnock during the 1992 election, most notably by asking the last person to leave Britain to put out the lights. John Major’s shock win and ‘The Sun’s treatment of Kinnock, left the party shell-shocked. This was the election that got away. How could you fight a Tory Press?
You fought the Tory Press, it turned out, by abasing yourself at News International management conferences, taking ‘The Sun’ seriously as political commentators, diluting that whole awkward redistribution rhetoric and using the Super Soaraway Sun as a dirty means to an end. Cherie Blair may not have wanted the rag in her house but that didn’t stop her husband praising its proprietor, trimming on hugely important issues such as the Euro and making New Labour a party of an impossibly broad church. There was room for artists and city lawyers, hedge fund managers and teachers, miners and the CBI. When ‘The Sun’ plumped for New Labour in 1997, you knew the election was in the bag.
There was a significant honeymoon period between Blair and the paper; when ‘The Sun’ decides it likes you it becomes nauseatingly, monosyllabically sycophantic. It backed the Blair/Brown agenda of light-touch, i.e. hapless, financial regulation, non-interference in the media-market and Alistair Campbell’s disastrous crusade against the BBC (the implications of which could hobble the organisation for a generation under a Tory administration). It supported the Iraq war with gusto and lashed into successive Tory leaders. But Murdoch, always loath to back a loser, followed Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism spiel from the start; he saw another Blair in the making. He turned against Brown with the same sense of cynicism that saw him plump for Blair; Murdoch has always been ‘politically loose’ and a King-Maker-manqué.
News International papers hook into the Murdoch family memes; if you want to stay an editor in the empire, you speak with your master’s voice. ‘The Sun’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ became the must-influence newspapers for New Labour – how fickle of the former and naive of the latter to expect any permanence in the relationship. Little England is alive and well in these illiterate and self-induced anger-filled publications. Cameron’s already aligned himself with dangerous extremists on the European stage; ‘The Sun’ will push him along the same disastrous course. For Labour, its time to say good riddance to bad rubbish and use News International to define what they are not. Nobody expects Gordon Brown to win the next election but Labour supporters do expect the party to at least go down fighting.
The good people of Liverpool have lived without ‘The Sun’ for the last twenty years; Labour Party members now have a chance to contrast themselves and their values against those of Britain’s Brightest Daily. Peter Mandelson feels betrayed – well, at least he spoke to News International executives in language they understand.