Once the go ahead was given for the 12 December poll, feature writers for the dominant Tory press began dusting down their vast library of horror stories about life under a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Dire predictions have been the stock in trade for highly paid columnists whose anti-Corbyn tirades have been afforded regular full-page treatment ever since he was elected Labour leader in August 2015.
Their rants started re-appearing with a vengeance from the very first day of the 2019 election campaign:
“Corbyn and his cronies who’d turn the UK into Venezuela (Leo McKinstry, Daily Mail, 30.10.2019) harked back to a catalogue of scare stories from the summer of 2017 that linked Corbyn to rioting in Caracas.
“Corbyn’s Caracas to think ‘socialist utopia’ helps poor” (Sun, 3.8.2017) or “Damning reasons he’s wrong about socialist utopia” (Daily Mail, 3.8.2017).
Given their previous form Conservative-supporting tabloids are sure to draw on a vast repertoire of alarmist headlines to dish Corbyn however slight the news peg might seem.
A pre-Christmas strike is possible at the Royal Mail after a 97 per cent vote in favour of industrial action.
Further talks have been offered to the CWU but perhaps this might become the cue for the Tory press to resurrect images of the 1979 “winter of discontent” and a mock-up of Corbyn wearing a cloth cap complete with red star.
This storyline has plenty of form: a double page spread illustrated with a picture of rotting uncollected rubbish in Leicester Square, had a pointed headline: “Corbyn will not be leading New Labour...or Old Labour, just...Dead Labour” (Tony Parsons, Sun, 23.8.2015)
Two years’ worth of wounding tabloid character assassination failed to dent Corbyn’s success in the 2017 general election when Labour made gains against the Conservatives in the face of Theresa May’s disastrous campaign.
But four years on from his election as leader, the tabloids’ unending rubbishing of Corbyn has had the same corrosive and cumulative effect as the relentless run of anti-immigration stories that did so much to strengthen the Leave vote in the 2016 European Referendum.
Vox Pops responses about Corbyn’s unfitness for office, and the dangers of the country being run by a “Marxist cabal”, are all too common in Labour’s Leave-voting constituencies, especially in those identified as having high concentrations of “Workington Man” – said to be Brexit-backing working-class men who live in northern Rugby League towns.
Will Tanner, of the think-tank Onward, suggests that “Workington Man” swing voters might deliver victory to Boris Johnson, a strategy in line with the Conservatives’ aim of targeting northern constituencies where many traditional Labour voters want Brexit delivered.
The challenge for Johnson’s staunchest press supporters – such as the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph – is to develop a credible pro-Conservative narrative that appeals to a target group which struggles to identify with Corbyn and a potentially hard-left administration.
Events in Northern Ireland, the Middle East or Russia might assist the tabloids in their efforts to reprise their playbook of scares and smears from the 2017 general election campaign: “Jeremy Corbyn is anti-British and a friend to terrorists” (Leo McKinstry, Daily Express, 15.5.2017); “Apologists for terror” (Daily Mail, 7.6.2017).
The dog that never barked for the Tory press in the final days of the Brexit saga before Johnson finally pulled the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, was the debate over the future enforcement of hard-won employment rights.
Almost as an afterthought there was a last-gasp flurry of interest about European input in the struggle to strengthen workers’ rights.
Needless to say the task of explaining the legal protection that British workers have accrued under EU directives was ignored by Brexit supporting newspapers – another example of mainstream media’s wilful failure to relate news coverage to the everyday concerns of working people.
Radio and television could so easily have sought targeted reaction to the value of European-wide standards rather than broadcast the all too often aimless responses of town centre shoppers and passers-by.
Why in the never ending, and often slanted, newspaper opinion polls have there been no questions about the importance of employment rights and the relevance of standards on health and safety if the UK leaves the EU?
Journalists were in the dock in the wake of the EU referendum for leaving the public so ill informed about the impact of Leave or Remain. Will news coverage of a hurried pre-Christmas general election fail again to rise to the challenge?
Illustrations: Daily Mail, 30.20.2019; Sun, 3.8.2017; Sun, 30.6.2017.