'Labour's Lost It' was the headline that appeared in The Sun newspaper on the 30th September 2009, as it announced that it was abandoning its support for the governing Labour Party and was now endorsing the Conservative Party. In the context of British politics this was seen as a decision that bestowed the kiss of death on Gordon Brown's government.
A short history of the Sun
When The Sun began life on the 15th September 1964 it was notionally an independent paper, despite the fact that it was owned by the Mirror Group and designed as a replacement for the decidedly pro-Labour Daily Herald. Nevertheless the newspaper generally leaned towards Labour even after it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch and relaunched as a tabloid. Under Murdoch's ownership, The Sun was transformed into the nation's best selling newspaper (current sales three million plus) and quite overshadowed its old Daily Mirror stable mate.
However under Murdoch's ownership the Sun later threw its weight behind Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party, and became a staunch advocate of her new brand of Conservatism. Indeed on polling day in 1992, it famously ran a front page that featured a photomontage of the head of Neil Kinnock, then Leader of the Labour Party, encased in a light bulb with the headline "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." Since the Conservative Party duly won the 1992 General Election, despite the fact that the opinion polls had predicted a Labour victory, the Sun duly claimed the credit for this apparent turnaround of fortunes - "It's The Sun Wot Won It". Although there was likely a simpler explanation - the polls were plain wrong - the Sun's intervention nevertheless provided a convenient scapegoat for many in the Labour Party.
When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and created New Labour he, or at least his spin-doctor-in-chief Alastair Campbell expended much effort in courting The Sun. The "fruit of three years' hard work" duly appeared March 1997 with another General Election campaign in progress, The Sun switched its support to Blair's New Labour, a decision which seemed to nail the final nail into the coffin being prepared for John Major's administration. The Sun duly confirmed its enthusiasm for New Labour when, following Labour's landslide victory on the 1st May 1997, it announced in 1998 that the Conservative Party had "ceased to be" and was now "an ex-party", as it featured yet another photomontage, this time showing William Hague as a dead parrot.
It thereafter remained faithful to the New Labour cause, and even welcomed the arrival of Gordon Brown and predicted that he would win the next election and "win big". Since that time however, The Sun became increasingly disillusioned with Gordon Brown and his version of the Labour Party. In particular it became increasingly critical of what it saw as the Government's failure to support the troops in Afghanistan, derided the current Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, for simply not being up to the job, as it ran a campaign under the slogan 'Don't you know there's a bloody war on?'
Having backed Boris Johnson for London Mayor, and made supportive noises before the European elections in 2009, it seemed a stone cold certainty that The Sun would greet the news that a General Election had been called with the words, 'Vote Conservative'. The surprise therefore, was not so much that the Sun had finally summed up the courage to utter those two all important words, but that it had done so at this particular point in time.
The Brighton Conference
The reason why The Sun announced its change of heart when it did was because the Labour Party was holding its annual conference at Brighton. Indeed on the 29th September 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown stood before Conference to deliver his keynote speech. With Labour trailing badly in the polls, much was expected of him. The faithful expected a rousing speech that would launch the Party's fight back and flesh out the details of the Party's manifesto for the coming campaign. There were one or two strange moments during Brown's address. In reference to the climax of the Global Banking Crisis in October 2008, he claimed that what had "let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology". And according to Brown it was the Conservative ideology that was bankrupt, a rather odd claim to make given that he had been Chancellor for the previous decade, and thus whatever ideology being followed during that time should have been his, rather than the Opposition's. He also made the rather absurd claim that Britain was "already global leaders in wind power, green cars, clean coal and carbon capture." Given that the nation's only wind-turbine manufacturing plant had only recently announced that it would be closing due to "lack of demand" and there was a distinct lack of any 'green cars' on the country's roads, it was difficult to now Brown had reached this conclusion.
Nevertheless there were a number of potentially eye-catching policy proposals. There was the promise of a referendum on a new voting system, a new National Care Service for the elderly, free car parking for hospital in-patients, and so forth. In the circumstances one might have expected that on the following day the media would be focussing on the Prime Minister's plans for the nation. Not a bit of bit. The big story on the 30th September 2009 was the front page of The Sun - 'Labour's Lost It' read the headline as the paper explained that 'After 12 long years in power this government has lost its way. Now it's lost The Sun's support too.' And in case anyone missed the point the Sun also offered a 'Dossier of their Failures - See Our Giant Poster Inside'.
As it was the Sun had little to say about Brown's speech, other than to complain of "his rewriting of history, his absurd caricature of the 'heartless' Tories, his tired promises to solve problems he has had 12 years to solve", and rather focussed on chronicling his government's many failures as it claimed that "Labour's driving ambition has not been to improve Britain. It has been to retain power at all costs". Unsurprisingly the paper therefore concluded that it believed, and prayed, that the "Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain".
As far as even the heavyweight press was concerned, this was now the story of the day, with headlines such as 'The Sun swings its weight behind Cameron's Tories' (The Guardian), 'The Sun backs the Conservatives' (Daily Telegraph) and 'Voters decide elections', says PM as Sun switches sides (The Independent). Only The Times felt it perhaps impolite to refer directly to the Sun's turnaround, given that it was under the same ownership. As they all noted, The Sun had clearly timed its announcement to cause maximum damage to the government's cause. And very successful it was too, as the media was dominated by a debate over the Sun's decision and what effect it might or might not have, and quite forgot about the fact that the nation's leader had just made what was supposed to be a 'very important speech'.
The Conservative Party leader David Cameron was naturally pleased, and so he should have been, given that it was said that his Director of Communications Andy Coulson, had been engaged in "months of delicate diplomacy" to achieve this very result. Of course it should not be forgotten that Brown had also been making great efforts to cultivate the Murdochs as well, and it was said that he believed that he had done enough to keep them 'on side'; all of which underlined the profound sense of shock when it became known that all his efforts were for nought.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sun's proclamation, Mr Brown appeared on television where he explained that "It's the British people that decide the election, it's the British people's views that I am interested in. ... We would have liked everybody to be on our side, but the people decide." Which was basically what the Conservatives said back in 1997 when the boot was on the other foot. Unfortunately Brown didn't stop there, as he became involved in a "fiery exchange" with his interviewer Adam Boulton for Sky News (proprietor one Rupert Murdoch) and tried to storm off camera, only to find that his escape attempt was frustrated by the fact that he was still wired for sound at the time. 'Brown goes into TV meltdown' said The Sun as it reported how Brown's "leadership fightback lay in ruins today after he lost his cool during a string of TV interviews" - a clear taste of things to come.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman was even more upset and spoke of how everyone in Labour was "angry about the Sun this morning" but insisted they would "not be bullied" by the paper. Tony Woodley, the leader of the Unite trades union, even tore up a copy of The Sun onstage at the Labour conference, whilst according to Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard, Peter Mandelson referred to the newspaper as "a bunch of cunts" during a telephone conversation with News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks. Naturally Mandelson denied the allegation and claimed that he'd used the word 'chumps'; The Sun simply retaliated with the headline 'Labour chumps with the hump' on the following day as it ridiculed Labour's petulant response.
Elsewhere The Guardian reported that a "Labour party source" had informed them that the "most effective thing we can do is hug their readers close but ignore their newspaper" and that in future the "Mirror, the Mail and the Telegraph" would be getting "all the stories"; although quite how depriving The Sun of whatever 'positive' news stories the government felt able to promote in the future would help its cause was another thing all together. Never mind, it simply underlined the sense of dismay and shock that pervaded the Labour Party on the 30th September 2009 as they contemplated the fact that the Sun didn't like them anymore.
Does it all matter?
The classic television sit-com Porridge once featured a scene where Fletcher addressed his fellow prison inmate Godber with the words, "Can you get me a copy of The Sun ... oh, and something to read"; a scenario that was mirrored in the (possibly apocryphal) response of a Birmingham builder to the scale of the Sun's coverage of its political conversion with the words, "I can't believe they moved page 3 for Gordon Brown". Which is to say, that the Sun, with its unashamedly populist approach, was not known for the depth of its political analysis. Whatever place the paper might have assumed in Labour mythology as the agent of their destruction in 1992 it was, after all, just a newspaper, more famous for its daily display of the semi-naked female form, rather than its incisive commentary on the issues of the day.
Indeed, a Professor John Curtice, who studied changes in voting preferences over the years between 1987 and 1995, concluded that "the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all". But whether or not there were any actual votes at stake, it nevertheless amounted to severe psychological blow to the Labour Party. As Bruce Anderson wrote in The Independent, if nothing else, the Sun's defection only added to the "sense of decay and death" which surrounded the government.
Please note, that strictly speaking. the above only applies to the England and Wales version of the Sun, as the Scottish Sun took a slightly different line. Although its editor one David Dinsmore announced that "he could no longer offer his support to the Labour government", he was not yet ready to endorse David Cameron until he showed more evidence of his "commitment to Scotland".
- The Sun Says: Labour’s lost it, The Sun, 30th September 2009
- James Robinson, The Sun warned it will lose out to its competitors over Tory switch, The Guardian, 30 September 2009
- Stephen Brook and Patrick Wintour. Sun turns its back on Labour after 12 years of support, The Guardian, 30 September 2009
- The Sun backs the Conservatives, Daily Telegraph, 30 Sep 2009
- Daily Mail Reporter, Brown loses his cool: PM's fightback backfires as he tries to storm out of TV interview, 30th September 2009
- Andrew Grice, Brown fumes at Murdoch's sabotage of his big moment, The Independent, 1 October 2009
- Andy McSmith, How Cameron cosied up to Murdoch & Son, The Independent, 1 October 2009
- Simon Carr: The last day of Labour, The Independent, 1 October 2009
- Brown goes into TV meltdown, The Sun, 1 October 2009
- George Pascoe-Watson, Labour chumps with the hump, The Sun, 01 Oct 2009
- Dominic Lawson, It’s the facts wot lost it for Labour, The Sunday Times, October 4, 2009