WITH Ukip’s victory in the EU elections and a strong performance in council elections across the country, Westminster’s traditional parties are searching for explanations of Nigel Farage and his party’s success. Many, despite evidence to the contrary, have until now laboured under the misapprehension that Ukip’s support is purely “dividing the right” and the broad conservative vote.
Following these results, however, commentators should consider the more cogent and persuasive explanation coming from research by academics Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin. Their analysis concludes that while Ukip’s original core vote came from Eurosceptics and conservative populists, many new Ukip voters, particularly in the north of England, are old left voters who reject social liberalism, mass immigration and pragmatic centrism. Others are the “left behind”, those with poor educational or economic outcomes.
Perhaps the most misguided view of Ukip’s success, however, is the idea that the party is the creation of the “right-wing” media – mainly Eurosceptic newspapers, whose hostility to the EU and immigration has helped foment anger at the political class. On Twitter at least, this opinion seems to be popular among Ukip’s biggest detractors. It essentially suggests that if only more people got their news from metropolitan opinion sources, Ukip wouldn’t be a problem.
Helpfully, new economic analysis by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro (professors at the University of Chicago) has something to say on this. They examined the political slant of more than 400 daily US newspapers to investigate whether they reflect the views of their readers – or try to shape them. Having identified the papers’ ideological slant, they sought to work out what caused this slant.
Many people, both here and in the US, believe that newspapers reflect the views of their owners, who then try to propagate their agenda to change public opinion. Indeed, much of the hysteria surrounding Rupert Murdoch in the UK is based on the idea of a “Murdoch agenda”. Yet the Chicago academics find no evidence of this effect. In fact, they find that newspapers with the same owner are no more likely to be ideologically similar than randomly chosen papers.
But the authors did find that, once you control for other factors like geography, the customers’ views were key in explaining the ideology of the newspaper. What’s more, people with the same ideology as the newspaper were more likely to buy it. It seems that newspaper businesses, seeking profit, try to reflect the views and concerns of their potential readership.
This study was in the US, and the UK media market is somewhat different – particularly because most people get their news from the BBC (which isn’t open to market pressures and the need to attract customers). Yet it does suggest that it is probably misguided to think newspaper content is responsible for Ukip’s rise. Rather, news stories on immigration and Europe and the rise of Ukip are being driven by the same thing – a large section of the public being concerned about these issues, and disagreeing with the broad consensus of the major parties. This poses a much more significant challenge to Labour and the Conservatives.
Ryan Bourne is head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.