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Cable editorial: Our media and elections are all too much like a century ago. Here’s what we can do.

A lot has changed, but too much remains the same.

General Election 2019

Pundits proclaimed a huge change to the political landscape as Boris Johnson was swept into Downing Street with a big majority and Labour suffered its worst result since 1935. But we would do well to remember that this election was neither won nor lost last night or even in the previous five weeks. The political landscape has dramatically changed today, but in other ways it has been influenced by things that have gone unchanged for 100 years.

In 2019 as in 1919, the debate that we have, whether televised or at the pub, is shaped hugely by the media. Despite honourable exceptions, the media is dominated by individuals and institutions that have not come near the standards the public needs. 

Many journalists have struggled to inform readers of the in-and-outs of politics, often due to a lack of resources. The flip side of this is the overwhelming firepower of the right-wing press, which acted as little more than campaign leaflets for the Conservative Party and their backers. 

The Conservatives increased their overall vote share by just 1% compared with 2017. Yet they enter Downing Street with an additional 66 seats and huge power

This isn’t about being pro-Labour or pro-Tory, this is about how the most powerful distributors of information are hand in glove with the most powerful of political parties. Take a look at most of today’s papers, and it’s clear that these parts of the media have not ‘failed’ at their job. They have achieved exactly what they set out to do this election by spreading falsehoods and fear.

Social media is the not-so-new frontier of the struggle to influence people. Many of the political adverts are above board, although perhaps a bit dirty depending on your taste. Alongside these are the intentional spread of fakery, to the extent that 88% of all Conservative election adverts on Facebook contained ‘misleading’ information (0% of ads by Labour were identified as such). 

They know it has an effect and spend thousands given to them by wealthy donors to make it so. Take our report on Vanessa, a pensioner living in social housing in Filton who voted Conservative because of false claims that Labour would introduce a new pensioner tax. 

Although the platform is different to traditional media, social media acts in the same way – the more you pay, the more reach you have, and there are very few consequences if that happens to be false. Oh, and you needn’t even be transparent about who is paying for it.

At current, the powers and institutions that could change this have no desire, or reason, to do so – in this case Facebook and the government itself, in relation to campaign and press regulation. We must, and can build a new media. There must, and can, be consequences for lies, and there must be a total clean up of the way money has an anti-democratic influence on elections.

Changes to our system long overdue

Which brings us to the second thing that hasn’t changed; our voting system. After years of heroic struggle, just 100 years ago, the right to vote was gradually expanded to all men, and to some women, followed by all women in 1928. A century later, changes to our voting system are long overdue.

In this election, the Conservatives increased their overall vote share by just 1% compared with 2017. Yet they enter Downing Street with an additional 66 seats and huge power. In this election, the SNP got 42 seats with 1.2 million votes. In the same election, the Greens got 70% of the number of votes as the SNP, but just one seat. 

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Such perverse results mean that genuine discussions about policies and a vision for the future get edged out by relentless discussion of tactical voting and personality contests. 

All of the above must help account for why about 15 million of us who are already registered to vote didn’t turn up yesterday. 

We must, and can, find a way forward where the power of those we elect has a close relationship to the amount of support they actually have. That shouldn’t be seen as radical. But, as before, will surely take a major struggle to make a reality. 

But beneath all this is something much deeper. It’s not about our relationship with a bloody trading bloc, or whether nationalising the railways is a good idea. It’s about trust in the political process and those at the top to build a better future, regardless of what you think or who you might agree with. That trust has been relentlessly undermined.

It’s a day for cliches, so the good news is that ‘politics’ doesn’t just happen at the ballot box. It happens in our families, communities and workplaces everyday. When those relationships are strong, our popular culture will change – to be based more on solidarity. The political process as a result will be for the better. 

But we have to build it, and grow it. Today and everyday. It will be fun. It will be hard. It will be both big moments and small gestures. But there is no alternative. 

Thank you to all the Bristol Cable members who worked with us throughout this election and supported our journalism. Readers acted as our eyes and ears, sharing dodgy campaign materials with us so we could monitor any disinformation. The snap election left us with little time to prepare, so please do get in touch with any feedback so we can keep on improving our reporting. 


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  • Mary Stonehouse-Burton

    I think the problem lies in the fact that we are not informed about what our MEPs do, and achieve! There is NO informational coverage about the British MEPs, or the EU at all, in the British press (unless its derogatory). If we had been kept informed about the EU and our place in it, at least some of the voters would have not felt so anti – EU. I have found that there was an election for the MEPs last May – I knew nothing about it, we had not been informed for some reason. I would like to know how that could happen!


  • How much more evidence do we need that our ‘first past the post’ voting system does not produce a fair democratic result? So let us discuss what system should replace it, and then campaign to get that change adopted.

    One suggestion about a quick and easy improvement: add to the end of every ballot paper another choice: “None of the above”. If None of the above wins, then the election in that constituency has to be re-run, and none of the previous candidates are allowed to stand – not likely, but an interesting prospect. And it would give people who are not happy with the options a chance to express their view, rather than not voting (interpreted as not interested) or spoiling their paper (which might be a protest, or might just be carelessness). If we knew how many people were not happy, maybe there would be more energy behind changing the system.


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