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Selfies and kitchen photo-ops star in 2015 general election

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Posted by Nicholas Jones

Selfies with the party leaders were the breakout craze of the 2015 general election – and the must-see location was definitely the kitchen! A post-election thesis might well seek to establish what proportion of the thousands of people who took selfies actually voted for the political party of the candidate with whom they had chosen to photograph themselves. Judging by the way the leading contenders were photobombed by a sea of mobile phones and tablets, onlookers obviously had an overwhelming desire to capture their moment with a celebrity politician.

Was the rush for selfies a passing fad? Did it – and will it – have political dividends? The same can be asked about kitchens: why were photo-opportunities all the rage? Were politicians taking advantage of the great popularity of shows like the Great British Bake Off or MasterChef? All these trends – and many more – are addressed in The Election A-Z, my latest book reflecting of 50 years’ of political reporting.

The 2015 general election, billed as being the most unpredictable since the Second World War, resulted in the unexpected certainty of an outright Conservative majority; triggered some dramatic political changes; and left in its wake plenty of unanswered questions.

For political activists and media pundits, the lesson of the 2015 campaign was that while social media became the most important place for instant reaction, the national press retained its ability to orchestrate and influence the flow of political argument.

Conservative-supporting newspapers drove much of the news agenda: the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph succeeded in monstering Miliband; in characterising the Labour leader as a political weirdo; and in convincing wavering voters that Nicola Sturgeon was the 'the most dangerous woman' in the United Kingdom.

Lynton Crosby, David Cameron's election strategist, with tried and tested Tory tabloids at his side, pursued a strategy that promoted the fear of a Labour-led coalition under the thumb of the Scottish Nationalists, a tactic that drove a wedge between wavering Liberal Democrat, Labour and UKIP supporters, peeling them off to back the Conservatives.

Another worrying scenario that worked to the Conservatives' advantage was the endless speculation about a second hung parliament. Yet again it was the national newspapers, which between them had commissioned hundreds of opinion polls that were responsible for ratcheting up the prospect of further political chaos.

All eleven eve-of-poll surveys predicted a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, a dire performance that is now being examined by the British Polling Council, and has prompted demands for a ban on polls being published in the final days of an election campaign.

For political journalists the sight of opinion pollsters running for cover has produced some wry smiles of satisfaction: polling companies had become players and their pundits were the new kids on the block among the political commentariat. Perhaps they will now get back to the task of verifying and analysing their statistics, and step back from political soothsaying.

Political correspondents are only too well aware that newspaper editors like to be judge and jury when it come commissioning and printing opinion polls, deciding the questions, editorialising the findings and timing publication for maximum impact. So yet again it was a demonstration of how the UK's politicised national press dictates the news agenda with its story lines feeding through to radio, television and social media.

Rarely has a general election had such a profound impact across the political landscape. After their historic landslide north of the border, the Scottish Nationalists are flexing their muscles at Westminster, determined to prove they can speak up for Scotland with greater effect than Scottish Labour.

Given the struggle Harriet Harman has encountered in presenting a coherent policy platform while Labour's fightback is on hold pending the outcome of the party's leadership election, the SNP have filled the void in the House of Commons forcing the Conservatives to retreat on English votes for English laws and fox hunting.

Tim Farron's election as the new leader of eight Liberal Democrat MPs offers his devastated activists hope of a fightback after the catastrophic loss of so many seats. The Lib Dems joined UKIP and the Greens in a post-election call for an end to the lottery of a first-past-the-post voting system that left their two parties each with a single MP after piling up millions of votes. Once the going gets tough as the Conservatives struggle with their slim majority, so the clamour will grow for electoral reform, proportional representation and votes at sixteen.

The fragmentation in support we saw in 2015 is likely to be even greater by 2020, as a return to the domination of the two-party system still seems remote.

For students of political campaigning, the 2015 election saw even tighter controls on party leaders' contact with both the news media and the public. Gone completely was the previous tradition of daily news conferences and in their place a round of photo-opportunities where some questions were permitted from a strictly-vetted press pack.

Although a walk-about was considered too risky after Gordon Brown's disastrous encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale in 2010, the demand for selfies was the breakout phenomenon of 2015.

Initially David Cameron complained that the insatiable appetite of constituents and supporters to grab a mobile phone picture of themselves with the Prime Minister was preventing him having meaningful conversations with voters, but like the other party leaders he was swept along by the craze.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader was considered queen of the selfies, having mastered the use of almost every phone and tablet on the market, and knowing precisely where to position her face - and smile - alongside her eager admirers. Perhaps it is time for a new opinion poll: what proportion of the thousands who grabbed a selfie ended up voting for the party of the leader with whom they were photographed?

This article was first published on 8 August at:          

DATELINE: 13 August, 2015


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