Friday, 11 July 2008

What's interesting about Haltemprice and Howden

When I heard on the radio this morning that David Davis had easily won back his Haltemprice and Howden seat in a by-election, I yawned and went back to sleep.

I’m with Martin Kettle of The Guardian here. I doubt very much that Davis’s decision to resign his seat and trigger a by-election will make a huge difference to what happens to government proposals to allow terrorist suspects to be detained without trial for 42 days. Some of the most telling arguments against “42 days” tend to come from the likes of the Crown Prosecution Service and now, Lady Manningham-Buller, the former boss of MI5.

What was really interesting is how the campaign did not play out the way David Davis expected. This is a good case study of how the media and not the politician really writes the narrative. Even more interesting was how their narrative about the Haltemprice and Howden byelection changed and evolved over the last few weeks. Martin Kettle traces the transitions in today’s column – from a focus on personalities, motives and ambition to a heady celebration of Davis’s cause and then to the by-election's loss of credibility and a general sense of bemusement, especially after Labour declined to put up a candidate.

Sometimes, the media will create a narrative about a politician and keep at it, thereby creating a conventional wisdom. I am sure that Ming Campbell would agree with me there. Other times, they will start to build a story about a politician and then shoot it down. Gordon Brown’s transformation last year from hero to zero is a case in point. But he handed them a sword by backing off from holding a snap election. Ever since, Brown has continued to wreck his personal narrative.

When it comes to topical issues, media narratives are more likely to chop and change, especially when they are tied up with the way politicians are being defined. The best example is the way that the turnaround in the media narrative on Iraq finally undid Tony Blair. Likewise, in 2006 David Cameron became a media darling on climate change, just when the media was getting more interested in it. That arguably helped to push climate change up the public agenda.

In their different ways, those issues become essential in rewriting Blair’s and Cameron’s political brands; in other words, their narratives. (But then the Tory leader failed to embody the green narrative by cycling to work followed by his official car). “42 days” looks could become another example. The issue has not catapulted David Davis into political superstardom -- far from it. According to the polls, most of the public seems to support the government over 42 days. But that could well change; in any case, the arguments and Lords defeats and the way they are framed by the media are likely to be tied into a bigger story – Gordon Brown’s collapsing premiership.

Here’s something to ponder: the Liberal Democrats’ may be finding it hard to build and sustain a narrative because we don’t – or aren’t allowed to – ride topical issues and become, through one of our star players, a big part of the story, come what may. It happened on Iraq but that lost its political force a long time ago. And Iraq didn’t, of itself, give the Lib Dems a brand identity.

1 comment:

Lee Griffin said...

Yet it did keep the story in the news after the vote was over, and has arguably produced a poll that undoes the Brown/Smith claim of public support. Yes big opinion from experts should be most important, but this is not just about locking potentially innocent people up, it's also about trying to save the Labour party for some MPs. Some seem to think they are doing the "right" thing because the public support it. This whole exercise is a good way to ensure that the MPs *do* just reference the expert opinion and not the politics behind the next result.

-Lee Griffin