Its trite stuff, but crucial to recognise that the press don’t simply represent political reality, but constitute it by means of their judgements of relevance, and the imagined characteristics and opinion they impute to the body politic in general.
The voters wont wear it, generally rests on the gurgling authority of a gut. Symmetrically, when polls emerge outlining – shorn of all reasoning – what those polled are not too abashed to confess to regarding their voting intentions – the colon-confidence of the commentating press must needs rest on crooked-backed hunches, or the pheromone sensitivities of ill-defined instinct, causing the collective randy noses of the fourth estate stoats to flare and sniff. Shapeless knowledge all.
Of course, scribbling on the hoof, resting on workmanlike ad hoc foundations of half verifiable knowledge is simply what we’ve got to live with. Awfully dull to say we cannot speculate. All I want to underline is that the tenor of the press’ speculation is itself subject to the whim, indeed the whimsy, which governs what attitude the press in general are entertaining towards particular clusters of politicals. Frequently, media claims that the government are having a bad week, is also to admit that they’ve been working to give them one. All in the service of this unseen and yet governing spirit: public interest, guided by her holier and ghostlier conscience: public opinion.
It seems to be the common consensus that the SNP “had a wobbly patch”. Or if we prefer technological metaphor, “losing steam” – braced for the grinding halt of “running out of steam” – or the more temporary, but spluttering peril of having “stalled”. Getting their persuasive wellies stuck in the political mud for shedding of a bill for Local Income Tax, losing Glenrothes, the first speight of ministerial executions, an argued dearth in the legislative agenda. In short, policy flagships sunk, and no quinquireme of
or dirty Scottish tugger to tow them out. Nineveh
Moreover, simultaneously Labour gets a reasonably soft ride of it. As I blogged at the time, neither of the “quality” broadsheets deigned to cover the apparent consequences of Margaret Curran deciding to ditch her role as chief marshal of new ideas in Scottish Labour, and indeed covered up by omission the significance of her departure. To date, I’ve read nothing on how this unexpected excision of the ostensibly primary actor in Labour’s “intellectual” revival has effected the party. Indeed, the Labour Party during the aforementioned phase have been depicted as having come to terms with defeat, as becoming plausible again. Gone the Wendibles. Back to business. And a businesslike man for the task in Iain Gray.
Here’s what I think. Talk of honeymoons was boring the media. The Labour Party weren’t being so ostensibly incompetent and politically lost. Poor Wendy had returned to spend more time with her twins. And then trailing clouds of glory, the thought appears, it is we - the quatrième état - who must hold this government to account. Which is, of course, quite straightforward. One just adjusts one’s spectacles, squints through the luminous gloom towards public opinion, and scratch out by and large what one fancies.
Even in a context where Alf Young, still doing his labouring duty, cheerfully suggests “we’ll have an outgoing Nationalist administration” after the next election, and the Scotsman similarly lacks enthusiasm for the SNP, one must remember that the coverage, even through gritted teeth, was generally positive towards the SNP for a significant phase of time after the election and brutally negative towards Labour. There is nothing given about media hostility to the party. The decision to take a more negative turn has to be seen precisely for what it is: a choice. But why? Brainless inquisitions into “are we still in the honeymoon phase” underlines how useless the idea of a honeymoon is analytically. Its very liminality is its undoing. After honeymoon, one settles down into ordinary married life. If one cannot account for ongoing love in that context – or perhaps, more accurately in the political context, a sense of not having been too disappointed yet – you are stuffed.
The mid-term anxieties in the press over the foregoing few months, I’d argue, are a response to this and foreground the idea of the media as opposition, as sceptics and doubters doughtily pursuing those in power. The crucial point about this, however, is that this primary press role implicitly underlines the ineffectiveness of the primary opposition. Hostile Labour politicians, making faces and striking poses in articles aren’t leading the attack, but being dragged along in the foam of its wake, strictly bit-players. Bad news for the government is not necessarily good news for the opposition, especially when it produces a discourse in which that opposition are persistently presented as sapped of vitality, unelected enthusiasts leading the charge. That implicit fact was bound to float to the surface eventually. I suggest it is presently making its way towards the surface of the Scottish political consciousness.
There are probably a number of factors informing this. The
government’s travails undoubtedly a major contributor, prodding those with anti-Labour sentiment to indulge in smaller, Machiavellian calculations in the Scottish scene. Consider the Herald’s coverage of the YouGov poll: "Pressure piles on Labour as the SNP power ahead in the polls”. Rather more prominent and pointed a take on the figures than it might have been, given the option of the “just another poll” analysis, with the mandatory shrug of epistemological modesty. Or this article by Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph from earlier this month suggesting that “Labour's lacklustre opposition makes the SNP's anniversary shine”. Westminster
Attention seems to be turning back – as well it might, given the relatively short period of time until the next Scottish general election – to Labour’s actual state. As I’ve argued before, it is all very well and proper to suggest that the Maximum Eck and cronies are making a hash of it, but in the round, one has to see allegations of SNP incompetence in the context of Labour’s plausibility to take over come 2011. Which returns our attention to their policies, their new ideas, the dreary, wobblebottomed character of their parliamentarians. Of the first two, one may struggle to find a speck. Of the latter, there remains an embarrassment of riches.
And of course, it reminds us of Margaret Curran, ex-chief organ grinder behind the scenes, who as far as I can tell, made no policy music at all before shuffling back into Glasgow East to press the flesh. Expect this theme to expand. Its all very well saying “no” to things convincingly, without accidentally sticking one’s thumb in one’s rectum, but if Labour is to prosper, she must produce a thing or two to say “yes” to to boot. And signs of this, there are none. Not a sausage.