How the media will frame our understanding of the EU election results

1st May 2019 / United Kingdom
How the media will frame our understanding of elections

By Simon Wren-Lewis: What will the European elections mean for the future of Brexit? We know that Remain is clearly ahead in polls and has been for some time, but an actual election has additional validity. What better to focus on the EU issue than elections to the European parliament. So quite rightly everyone will be looking to the result to gauge popular opinion.

There is only one problem. The obvious thing to look at is votes cast because these are unaffected by a voting system that penalises small parties. There are three main pro-Brexit, anti-People’s Vote parties (Con, Brexit and UKIP), five anti-Brexit, pro-PV parties (Green, LibDem, CHUK, SNP and Plaid) and Labour. Although Labour is officially a pro-Brexit party, it is likely something in excess of three-quarters of those who vote for Labour are anti-Brexit.

But as I have written before, the media will focus on Nigel Farage. What is also almost certain is that they will focus on seats won rather than votes. As Ian Dunt writes:

Sure, Remain might end up doing as well as Brexit parties in the popular vote, but it won’t matter. That’s not how journalists think and it’s not how Westminster thinks. They care about who wins: how many MEPs are returned and from which party.”

I can confirm, based on a twitter conversation with a journalist for a major broadcaster, that this is exactly how they will behave. They will focus on the large number of seats Farage wins compared to the small number of seats that the anti-Brexit parties win in England and declare a victory for Brexit. This journalist even said it would mean the death of a People’s Vote.

Now if this was all about the UK’s representatives to the European Parliament, then, of course, it would be right to focus on seats. It seems likely that had the Greens, LibDems and CHUK cooperated they would win more seats each than if they fight each other. But if you are trying to assess what the vote means for popular sentiment on Brexit you should look at the vote. Ask any pollster. But the media will to a large extent ignore this.

The only defence for the media’s approach is that politicians will also focus on seats. But will they? I think the truth is that the political parties that do well in terms of seats will do so. Those that do well in terms of votes will focus on votes. In particular, the winner in terms of seats will make a great deal of fuss about that fact. The media loves to focus on winners for understandable reasons. The problem comes in letting this focus spill over into statements about issues where its votes not seats that matter.

Suppose the result in terms of votes and seats (excl Northern Ireland) is something like this (not a forecast, but just reasonable numbers to illustrate my point):

Labour 27% Seats 23

Pro-No Deal parties 28% Seats 25

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Conservative 14% Seats 10

Anti-Brexit 31% Seats 12

Suppose Farage gets all of those 25 seats. He will be the winner, and we will see celebrations by him everywhere. But does that imply that a People’s Vote is dead? Of course not, as PV parties will have won 58% of the vote. Does it imply we should leave with No Deal. Of course not: no deal parties have only 28% of the vote, which is less than the anti-Brexit parties. Can we trust the media to make these points? I suspect not.

It is depressing how people internalise media behaviour. I have read countless tweets, articles and podcasts saying that the failure of the three anti-Brexit parties to cooperate is a huge mistake because it will damage Remain’s cause. This is from Remainers themselves, not their opponents, and Remainers who know how the media behaves.

Why is it so difficult for the media to focus on reality, rather than make up a false truth that is sympathetic to certain politicians and newspapers. Maybe the reason is just bias – a bias imposed by the partisan press that too often sets the agenda. Maybe it reflects the media’s obsession with parliament and MPs, where MPs from Remain parties are few in number. Maybe it reflects how the media sees elections as horse races were only the winner matters. None of these reasons are good, so it is a shame that so many people internalise the media’s framing rather than challenging it.

Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford.



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