Three-D Issue 28: General Election 2017: the Brexit Campaign?

In media terms (and several other ways) the 2017 General Election has been quite a different campaign to the previous one fought only two years ago. This is primarily because, according to our research, Brexit has returned the issue of the UK’s relationship with the European Union to the top of the news agenda as the major substantive topic for debate in the opening weeks of the race. In 2015 David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on British membership appeared to have largely stymied discussion of an incredibly thorny topic (it was only 9th most prominent overall) that had threatened to again deprive him of an overall parliamentary majority.

The marginalisation of the EU as a key issue seemingly helped stem the momentum built up by UKIP following its victory in the previous year’s European elections. Moreover, and despite the best attempts of Eurosceptic politicians, it should be noted how this issue had also been noticeably less prominent in the General Elections of 2005 and 2010. Rather you have to go back to Tony Blair’s first two victories of 1997 (when it was 2nd most prominent) and 2001 (2nd again) to experience a similar level of interest, and this of course was in relation to whether Britain would join the Euro or otherwise further integrate. Now Theresa May is seeking what she has defined as her own mandate to take more fundamental action through overseeing a total withdrawal. Here there is an obvious risk that the issue could yet still dominate the election… of 2021/22

As the 2017 General Election campaign closes it will be interesting to see if the opposition parties are able to shape and reshape the news agenda away from Brexit through promoting other substantive issues in a way they arguably individually and collectively failed to do so two years before when Cameron effectively turned the election into a vote on the economic credibility of his principal rivals rather than being about his own record in office. Allied to this much was said of how Ed Miliband would need to be propped up and even dominated by potential partners the SNP in a coalition government scenario. By contrast the 2017 campaign has seen something of a return to past whereby the election is being primarily reported as a battle between Labour and the Conservatives. Whereas representatives of these two main parties together only accounted for 57% of TV and 72% of press appearances in the opening stages of the 2015 election the equivalent figures for 2017 are 71% and 85% respectively.

REport-2-Figure-1.4-Change-in-media-prominence-of-parties-2015-versus-2017The SNP have been notable casualties of the marked squeeze on all the other parties. Although the Scottish Nationalists are now clearly established as the third party at Westminster they are from being that if judged by the limited amount of coverage they have had in this campaign, especially when compared with 2015. Similarly UKIP have been returned to their relative obscurity, with Ofcom announcing they would not again be assigning major party status to them (or, in a surprise move, any of the competitors for that matter) as happened two years ago. Of course this time around the Prime Minister has declined to agree to debate with rivals who would have included many of the smaller parties who benefitted from such a platform to maximise their media exposure at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.

Theresa May’s strategists have likely calculated that she starts the election so far ahead in the polls this time that she has nothing to gain by agreeing to participate in potentially risky encounters with confident performers such as Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon memorably used the only face to face, seven way debate between all the major leaders in 2015 to launch herself as the relatively news Scottish First Minister on the wider public stage. Instead of directly debating her opponents on TV May has suggested she wants to knock on doors and meet voters. But as Ed Miliband found it can be easier to share a platform with rival politicians than it is to face a studio audience prepared and able to put leaders under relentless scrutiny.

You can read more about the CRCC’s election research here:

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