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Some lessons in how to combat the Tory propaganda machine

 The initial results of voting last Thursday are very easily explained. First, voters had a terrible year in 2020 and government help in getting the vaccine out means 2021 is looking much better, so naturally voters will reward the government. That means the Tories in England, Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland (modified ...

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The initial results of voting last Thursday are very easily explained. First, voters had a terrible year in 2020 and government help in getting the vaccine out means 2021 is looking much better, so naturally voters will reward the government. That means the Tories in England, Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland (modified by tactical voting against a second independence referendum). It’s like Brown’s poll bounce as he saved the banks, and therefore large parts of the economy, from the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.

Second, on top of that, Conservatives have recreated their Brexit success, because to many who voted Brexit, the vaccine rollout doesn’t just reflect well on the current UK government, it validates their choice to vote Leave and the party that got Brexit done. While many Brexit voters were beginning to doubt the wisdom of their choice in the second half of 2020, those doubts have disappeared. As a result to a first approximation in England the polls last Thursday were a repeat of the 2019 election, with the Conservative party becoming the Brexit party.

In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?

Some lessons in how to combat the Tory propaganda machine

As the results further south came in, the picture was reversed. The Tories lost Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, lost the Cotswold's Chipping Norton to Labour, lost Tumbridge Wells and elsewhere, and Labour lost many contests in Bristol to the Greens. 

The odd thing about these elections was Starmer’s reaction to them. As he hasn’t given left wing social conservatives something left wing to vote for, how did he expect anything different from 2019 in red wall seats? Sacking Rayner is, to quote Stephen Bush, just “mystifyingly stupid, self-discrediting and self-destructive”. Johnson is a populist and to his target voters he promises whatever they want to hear. Starmer needs to start demonstrating that those promises are empty and he can do better, and not keep making the story about Labour’s internal wars. .

In terms of political deception, this idea that the UK’s vaccine rollout vindicates Brexit is the best kind of myth because it’s based on a half-truth. It is true that the UK’s vaccine rollout has been faster than the EU’s, and the EU had a joint vaccine procurement programme. That is easily enoughfor Boris Johnson, and it is enough for pretty well all Brexit voters. In terms of public perception it just doesn’t matter that what is stated as a truth is at best a conjecture(if the UK had stayed in the EU would it have joined the joint programme?). What makes this myth particularly powerful is that many Brexit voters want to believe they made the right choice, so they want to believe it is true.

Johnson is not the first Tory Prime Minister to create a powerful myth out of a half-truth. Perhaps the most successful in recent times was the Coalition government’s claim that austerity was necessary because of the previous Labour government’s profligacy. This was a myth that could be easily shown to be false by lookingat just one chart, but that was too much for the media to do. They just recalled Labour being criticised over insufficient consolidation, which was a half-truth because any lack of consolidation was tiny compared to the impact of the GFC. Labour’s failure to challenge the myth ensured it became ‘common knowledge’, and it ended up forming the basis of Cameron’s 2015 election win.

That episode points to the first lesson in how to begin combatting the Tory propaganda machine: counter myths quickly and hard. Combating Tory spin and propaganda does not mean the odd fact check or statement by a minor minister - it means a senior opposition minister of better still the Labour leader doing the rounds of the broadcast media studios, because that is Labour’s only hope of communicating with most people. In addition only by doing this do you have any chance of preventing the political journalists from the broadcast media accepting the myth as truth, and this matters because the broadcast media is the only route to countering the Tory propaganda machine.

The Tory propaganda machine is formidable because it has most of the daily press on its side. The broadcast media tends to follow the press. It is one reason why people seem to have forgiven Johnson allowing the second wave to grow but credited him for the vaccine rollout. The only thing Labour has going for it is rules about balance that apply to the broadcast media. It will be hard for the broadcast media to ignore senior opposition ministers or their leader. It will also be hard for this media to accept as true something the opposition party fiercely contests.

This leads to a second lesson for Labour. Commission research on the airtime each party gets on each broadcast platform, and use it if (as I suspect) it shows Tory politicians appearing many times more often than Labour. (Comparable figures from the past are available.) Use that as a lever to get senior Labour politicians appearing on the broadcast media to counter important Tory misinformation.

The third lessonis to choose which myths Labour tries to counter wisely. As I have already noted, attacking the idea that Brexit allowed the UK’s superior vaccine rollout is hard to contest, partly because so many Brexit voters want to believe it but mainly because it might have been true. In contrast, the idea that the government’s policy of Freeports is only possible because of Brexit is easy to refute because some EU countries have freeports and parts of the UK used to have them while we were in the EU. Contest those lies that are important and easy to refute.

The advantage of this strategy is that it will begin to create the idea that Johnson is not trustworthy. Starmer’s approach to PMQs does not do that for most voters. Yes Johnson avoids his questions, but all most people see are the soundbites that may appear on TV. In that context Johnson’s avoidance of the question is not obvious but he gets to rattle off various uncontested and often false claims. When one of these claims is false Labour has to contest them, otherwise many voters who see the claim unchallenged on TV and in the papers will unsurprisingly assume it is true.

That is about correcting misinformation. But Labour also needs to counteract Tory spin. This government is very good at spin, partly because they are happy to depart from facts, and if you take this spin at face value you would believe it is championing a Green revolution (it is not), leveling up economic activity northwards (it is not) and spending large amounts of public money on public services (it is not). So the fourth lesson for Labour is to do far more to counteract this spin. If Labour is to have any chance of winning back any of the Brexit seats they lost in 2019 they have not just to make a strong economic offer before the election but also convince the voters that the government is not doing the same. The former means nothing without the latter.

For those rightly saying Labour needs to say what it stands for, challenging Tory spin will go a long way to fixing that, because a standard line of most journalists confronted with an opposition pointing out obvious government lies or spin is ‘what would you do then?’ Even if it isn’t asked Labour can say where their policy differs from the government. (What you do not do is this.)

Highlighting things that are not said is as important as attacking misinformation. For example Labour really should be making more noise about NHS privatisation. Rather than a general attack I would focus on one aspect almost exclusively: the takeoverof 58 GP practices by Operose Health, a UK subsidiary of the US company Centene, and the likelihood that others will follow. This is a result of the 2012 reforms, and Labour can point out that a CEO of Operose has becomea No10 advisor. Labour can hammer home that a GP services run for profit is not compatible with the ethos of the NHS. The NHS may remain free at the point of use, but GPs service run for profit do not guarantee quality of service, and almost certainly will reduce quality. [1]

Labour has had some success attacking sleaze and corruption, and there is enough material there to take us to the next election. This is important to do, not only because it will influence voters at some point, but also because corruption is so close to what this government is. I think trying to equate it to sleaze under Major (‘same old’) is a mistake, because the scale of it today is well beyond that. Instead two points need to be hammered home. First, how its scale is unprecedented. Second, why it matters to ordinary people, such as here.

I’m sure there are other areas like this where Labour just are not making enough noise. Above it all is the economy, but it will be hard to make much headway in the near future when the media will be banging on about record growth (which is just the consequence of the record recession caused by the pandemic). Over the next year Labour need to relentlessly point that out, by making comparisons to 2019. What it does after the recovery is over can wait for another post.

Why have I not talked about policies? Good policies are important, but there is no point having good policies if you are not getting them across. A populist government aims to dominate the media, which is why Labour must get better at being a counterpoint to the government's propaganda machine. A populist government will only be defeated when enough voters, with the help of the opposition, realise there is little substance behind the spin and lies.

Even if Labour did all this, I still think it has almost no chance of winning the next election without cooperation with the LibDems and Greens over which party stands in marginals. The reason is structural and simple. Labour do need to appeal to left wing social conservative voters, and that is bound to alienate many social liberals who feel Labour is failing to champion enough social liberal causes. (This is not helped by making those on the left in Labour feel unwelcome [2]). The Green party did well on Thursday, and will continue to pick up votes as a result of Labour’s strategy from those unwilling to vote tactically. Without cooperation with other opposition parties Labour’s strategy is highly likely to be self-defeating. This seems like a basic problem with Labour’s strategy that Labour have failed to address.[3]

[1] To any Tory apologist that talks about private sector efficiency gains, just compare the vaccine rollout under the NHS to the government’s test and trace infrastructure that had substantial private sector involvement, cost billions and kept failing its targets.

[2] Those on Labour’s right who think they have to replay the 1980s to win again should look at the US, which is a far more relevant parallel when fighting a populist.

[3] I know Labour’s constitution prevents this kind of cooperation, so change the constitution! I suspect the main hurdle to this is not Labour members but the Labour leadership.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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