Coverage is paramount when it comes to an election. When Donald Trump was campaigning to be the Republican nominee for President last year the media gave him a running commentary. They followed his every move. They broadcast all of his support rallies and interviews, ultimately allowing him the platform to reach millions of people in the United States. By doing this, the media sought to normalise Trump’s presence on our TV screens, and encouraged us to think of him as a leading candidate in the race for the White House.
Trump was subsequently chosen as the Republican nominee.
Fast forward a few months and Donald Trump’s rhetoric continued to gain maximum exposure. Phrases such as ‘America First‘ and ‘Make America Great Again‘ became part of the electorate’s subconscious. Late on into his campaign, news broke of a recording dating back over ten years of Trump speaking disparagingly about women. A new phrase, ‘Grab ’em by the Pussy‘, thus made it into the Trump lexicon. Along with demands that he release his tax returns, the media covered it – top to bottom – which far from distancing voters from Trump actually immersed them further into his world.
Days later, Donald Trump was elected the next President of the United States.
It is clear looking back that the media were tasked with deligitimising Trump (something they continue to do) but not with the intent to stymie his Presidency.
Compare this to when Republican Ron Paul twice ran for President in 2008 and 2012. One of Paul’s leading mandates was to question the existence of the Federal Reserve, even going as far as publishing a book in 2009 called, ‘End the Fed‘. Instead of vilifying Paul, the response from the media was to ignore him. By doing that his message gained no traction, and millions who could have taken on board his perspective and investigated it further never materialised.
One reason for this is that the Federal Reserve is an institution which, from the mainstream’s perspective, is there to be preserved, not challenged. If you allow coverage from a candidate who is espousing the abolition of such an institution – whether it is positive or negative – it presents an opening for support of that candidate to grow. To prevent that, the media shut down Ron Paul immediately, leaving only a grass routes level of support to remain.
Here in the UK, the institution of the EU is being openly challenged, all the way to Britain’s withdrawal from the union. The EU is also driving the agenda of growing nationalist / ‘populist’ movements throughout European politics. In other words, a rise in nationalism is not a forbidden narrative in the press. It is both encouraged and afford extensive media coverage.
Although the scenario is very different to Donald Trump and Ron Paul, I believe we are witnessing a similar model at play in regards to UKIP leader Paul Nuttall’s attempt to gain entry to Parliament through the Stoke – on – Trent by election.
Let’s take a look at the evidence and build a case for the idea:
First of all, this election is being contested at a time when the primary political concern in the UK remains that of Brexit. Stoke – on – Trent has been dubbed the ‘Brexit Capital of Britain‘ after 69% of its constituents voted to leave the EU in June last year. It was this that persuaded Paul Nuttall to run for the vacant seat, which came about following Labour’s Tristram Hunt’s decision to quit after seven years as an MP in the city.
After announcing his candidacy, Nuttall said,
“I am sick and tired of Englishness being the one national identity in our island that is not allowed to speak its name. And let me tell you, I am English and I am proud of it and unlike Labour I am also proud of our flag.”
“If waterboarding ensures that we save a number of lives in this country or in America because someone admits to something that is going to happen in terms of a terrorist attack… well through gritted teeth I’d probably be OK with it. If someone admits that a terrorist attack is going to happen and saves the lives of innocent individuals then I think maybe it’s a price worth paying.”
Next came a story from February 1st, where UKIP were forced to deny that Paul Nuttall had used an empty flat as his home address on by-election registration forms. Staffordshire Police briefly became involved after ‘considerable media interest‘ had prompted them to open an investigation.
A UKIP spokesman said,
“The flat was rented before close of nominations, which was yesterday. Now he’s formally a candidate and the campaign is under way, Mr Nuttall finally has an opportunity to move in, which he will do tonight. He plans to spend a lot of time in Stoke-on-Trent campaigning and will be using the flat as his base. If he’s successful he will find a permanent home in the constituency.”
Nothing more came of it. But once more, it gained the attention of the mass media. Paul Nuttall’s name was now becoming more widely known.
No political campaign is complete, however, without some well crafted and conveniently timed sub-plots. Think Hillary Clinton stumbling to get into her car at the 9/11 memorial in September last year, and how a camera was positioned perfectly to capture the scene.
Ten days after the story on Nuttall’s flat gained press, the Sunday Times reported that Labour had been sounding out potential candidates to eventually replace Jeremy Corbyn. The MP’s in question were shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner. Labour denied the story, but the party’s new election chief, Ian Lavery, is on record as saying that,
“I think they are fantastic candidates. I think we have got lots of quality in the Labour party and it’s not just the two that’s been mentioned. There’s plenty of leaders to pick from if and when Jeremy decides, of his own volition, that it’s not for him at the election. That isn’t the case at this point in time.”
A day later, the plot then turned to a man called Paul Mason, a former BBC Newsnight presenter and supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking at an event organised by Novara Media, Mason openly criticised UKIP supporters, which the mainstream dutifully picked up on:
“Most of the UKIP people are either people who haven’t voted or have flipped in a radical way from Labour. They are toe-rags, basically. They are the bloke who nicks your bike. No, seriously, that’s who it is. It’s the bloke who does all the anti-social things.”
This form of typecasting was not dissimilar to when Hillary Clinton pronounced Donald Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables‘. What Clinton portrayed as a negative towards Trump ended up being shown as a positive come election night.
Following on from this was news that working class voters are now said to be turning their support away from Labour and to UKIP. According to RT,
Labour’s popularity among working class voters has fallen to its lowest level ever, with new polling figures suggesting the party is trailing both the Tories and UKIP.
A YouGov survey suggests Labour’s working-class approval rating, now at 20 percent, has fallen behind UKIP’s 23 percent and the Tories’ 39 percent.
Right around the time this story came out, Paul Nuttall became embroiled in a further episode. He was forced to deny that he had lost close personal friends during the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, despite his own website having reported it as fact. Responding to mounting media pressure – not to mention coverage – Nuttall told supporters at a UKIP conference:
“Firstly I take the blame for the fact that I failed to check what was put on my website in my name. That is my fault and I apologise. But I do not apologise for what is a coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign that has been directed towards me.”
Further into this conference, Paul Nuttall asked the attendees whether he still had their backing. They responded with cheers and a standing ovation. Nuttall rubbed his eye at this point and was said to be wiping away a tear. The story has since faded throughout the media, but could yet contribute to working in his favour. The fact that Nuttall openly apologised – a genuine act or not – may turn people to him rather than against him. After all, British politicians have a notorious history of either dodging an issue or refusing to take responsibility for their actions.
As Nuttall was once again enjoying copious amounts of media coverage, a story that gained only local press coverage was news that around 2,500 new voters have registered to take part in the Stoke – on – Trent by-election. According to the Stoke Sentinel, the total electorate now stands at 57, 701 – up over 4% since the election was called in January. It is a trait in politics that a high turnout usually means trouble for the party presently in power, which in this case is Labour.
With Brexit positioned as the central pillar behind the Stoke by-election, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was next to add some more colour to the Labour sub-plot. Speaking in London, Blair went on the offensive and posited the notion that the British people should be granted the right to change their minds on the EU referendum result:
“All I’m saying is a very, very simple thing, that this is the beginning of the debate – that if a significant part of that 52% show real change of mind, however you measure it, we should have the opportunity to reconsider this decision.”
Blair then added, tellingly,
“The debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true.”
At the same time that Labour is fighting to hold on to Stoke – on – Trent – which incidentally is being contested by a pro remain candidate in Gareth Snell – the most prominent face from the party’s past uses this moment to campaign in favour of reneging on the original Brexit vote and giving the British people a second referendum. The question then is how the ‘Brexit Capital of Britain‘ is likely to respond.
Twenty four hours after Blair’s speech, Paul Nuttall was again implicated in a fresh quandary. This one dates back to 2009 where it is said that he accepted a position on the board of North West Training Council (NWTC), a claim reported on his own website.
Nuttall had orginally said that,
“I was very impressed by my visit to the NWTC and have nothing but praise for their contribution. They are doing a first-class job and I am thrilled at the honour of being a board member.”
However, Paul Musa, the organisation’s chief executive, denies this:
“Mr Nuttall was never invited to become a board member of NWTC as this would need to be a directive of the NWTC board, who he never met.”
This past weekend, a wide number of daily newspapers, as well as regional publications, ran with the story, increasing Paul Nuttall’s press exposure still further.
Our final part of this by-election tale – at least up to the time of writing – returns us to the Labour Party, and in particular leader Jeremy Corbyn. On the same day that further claims against Nuttall were being made, Corbyn was speaking at Labour’s local government conference in Warwick, where he appealed for voters to reject the ‘politics of hate’ that he claims UKIP espouse:
“Hatred won’t build homes, it won’t create jobs, and it won’t fund health and social care. It won’t bring our people dignity or bring our communities together. But that’s true of the Tories too – when politicians of the right have no solutions, they find a scapegoat. They try to divide and set people against each other.”
Corbyn could have used this platform to theorise as to why working class voters who were once loyal Labour supporters are now apparently transferring their allegiance to UKIP. Instead, he kept to the script of UKIP being a party of hate, much as he has also kept to the script of Donald Trump being both anti muslim and a misogynist. At no time has he attempted to understand why people are beginning to see UKIP as a viable alternative to Labour. Whether his dogmatic approach yields any reward will soon be known.
The Stoke – on – Trent by-election takes place on Thursday the 23rd February, the same night in which Labour are also contesting the constituency of Copeland in Cumbria. Copeland, like Stoke, came out in support of leaving the EU last year with 62% of the vote. The Labour candidate, Gillian Troughton, voted remain.
What we have hear is two staunch Brexit communities in which the ruling party, Labour, has put forward pro remain candidates. It should be noted that Labour’s Gareth Snell has had his own run ins with the press in recent weeks. He came out and apologised over what were deemed sexist comments he posted on Twitter some years ago. As well as this, Snell was also picked up for posting an anti Brexit poem on Twitter last September. Whilst gaining press exposure, it was minimal compared to Paul Nuttall. Outside of Stoke – on – Trent, very few will know who Gareth Snell is, whereas Nuttall, as leader of UKIP, is becoming a household name.
Looking back through the series of events leading up to the elections, two facts are clear. Paul Nuttall has gained the most press attention out of all the other candidates in Stoke combined. That the coverage has been overwhelmingly negative may prove to be immaterial. Remember that the adage of ‘all publicity is good publicity’ ultimately worked in Donald Trump’s favour.
The perception in some quarters of the media is that Nuttall’s campaign is fading away, with the expectation of a low turn out now being discussed. The fact that 2,500 extra voters have registered in time for the election has not gained any traction in the mainstream.
If Paul Nuttall wins, and becomes UKIP’s first leader to enter the House of Commons, it will further erode Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. The result of Copeland would not matter at this point, even if Labour hold on. A Nuttall victory would be the overriding story.
If Nuttall loses, however, then the idea of UKIP assembling into a force in British politics will be consigned to myth. Corbyn would regain a bit of ground and stave off some of the pressure that has been steadily building around him since Labour’s split vote on article 50 earlier in the month.
So which way is the momentum travelling? I find it telling that as Paul Nuttall began receiving mounting recognition from the press – and thus prominent exposure – Labour were gently putting across the idea of a future without Jeremy Corbyn. Those calls will grow louder if what I suspect will happen – a Nuttall victory – does materialise.
Now that the article 50 bill has been all but settled, there is a clear window for Paul Nuttall to enter Westminster in time for the next round of Brexit bills, which will come after the state opening of Parliament in the spring.
In a previous blog post from December – How the Perception of UKIP as a Party for the ‘Working Class’ Could Decimate Labour – I debated how Paul Nuttall embodies the working class image that UKIP are seeking to cultivate. The perception of this is all that is necessary. The shaven head, the stubble, the broad Liverpudlian accent. He portrays the working class far better than Nigel Farage ever could. This at a time when stories in the media suggest Labour – the traditional home of the working classes – are starting to lose their core support. It was Nuttall himself who said after being elected UKIP leader in November 2016:
“My ambition is not insignificant: I want to replace the Labour party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people.”
Should Nuttall be victorious in Stoke, it would be seen by the media as further affirmation of the Brexit vote, and also reinforce the impression of a resurgence in nationalism / ‘populism’ in the UK.
In a year when countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Holland could potentially elect far right candidates of their own, the rise of Paul Nuttall to parliament would be no small matter. This has always been the one ingredient missing in UKIP’s armory. Nigel Farage never made it as far as Westminster, but remains a vital cog in cementing UKIP’s presence within the European Union. They now require a leading presence in the House of Commons if they are ever going to gain a strong footing in British politics.
And perhaps key to understanding a Paul Nuttall victory, if it happens, will lie in the rise of Donald Trump. Is what we have witnessed with Nuttall a deliberate campaign to deligitimise him whilst simultaneously promoting him to power?
Stoke – on – Trent will provide the answer in three days from now.