Monday, January 24, 2011

Sticks and stones and Tory-led coalitions

Labour has executed a small, but smart bit of media handling:

Ed Miliband's office is writing to the BBC, ITV and Sky demanding they stop describing it as a coalition and instead use Labour's preferred description, a Tory-led government.

Everyone knows that the government is a coalition in which the Conservatives are the larger party and the Lib Dems the smaller party. To describe it as “the coalition government”, “the Conservative-led government” or indeed anything other than “the government” is to specifically draw people’s attention towards one aspect of it.

If the modifier is factually accurate, then that’s fine – as long as the context makes it reasonable to highlight that aspect. “Lib Dem backbenchers have been arguing for X, but the Conservative-led government is maintaining its policy of Y” – fine. “Despite tensions, the coalition government shows no sign of breaking up” – fine.

Otherwise, you’re making a political point. And unless you’re a news reporter who needs to present things neutrally, that’s fair game. Labour calculates, probably rightly, that “Tory-led” is likely to make some left-leaning Lib Dems less keen on the government. And the Tory and Lib Dem leaderships calculate, also probably rightly, that the word “coalition” makes them seem to be doing lovely things such as making sensible compromises, forming a consensus, putting aside partisanship for the greater good. But whatever effects this language has are probably marginal.

(I’d love to see an opinion poll testing the effect of the word “coalition”. For instance, ask half the sample “Do you think the government is acting in the whole country’s interests/understands the problems faced by people like you/whatever?” and ask the other half “Do you think the coalition government…”)

Now. Miliband’s people will not get the news media to start using “Tory-led” in standard reporting. But, as James Forsyth says, “I suspect that this whole row will rumble on for a while yet. It is tempting to dismiss the whole thing as absurd, as only of interest to a few journalists and spin doctors. But labels do matter.”

Yes. And while this spat is not going to achieve its nominal aim – as Krishnan Guru-Murthy says, “because of the associated controversy my own view is currently that I should avoid the phrase [‘Conservative-led’]”. But the effect is that “coalition” has now been outed as a politically loaded term. So we may well see less of it. Guru-Murthy again: “However the exclusive use of ‘coalition’ feels equally unfair and controversial”.

1 comment:

Tom said...

'Labour calculates, probably rightly, that “Tory-led” is likely to make some left-leaning Lib Dems less keen on the government.'

I don't think you're right there, actually. I think it's that Labour doesn't want people thinking 'the government are cutting X, Y, and Z'; they want them thinking 'the Tories are cutting X, Y, and Z'. Just saying 'the government' - let alone 'the coalition' - distances the party from their actions. And, as you say, 'coalition' also has fluffy associations of compromise and consensus and all that.