How politically polarised is the UK?

Divided Opinion
Source: cdd20 (via. Pixabay)

By Eva Rodericks 

Former leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, said in one of his speeches “never get so high and mighty you can’t learn from other people”. At times, it appears we have. Do we now take political disagreement so personally that we class people with opposing views as unable to offer valuable insights, as we perceive their political affiliation to be their most defining feature?

Watching back both the Labour and Conservative campaign trail speeches from 2019, I was reminded of a football match, as the leaders were being praised by their party members with unfailing loyalty. It concerns me that such allegiance to a party reduces mobility to vote for another party. If Liverpool were to lose all of their matches, they would probably still withhold most of their fan base. A similar image is emerging in politics, where we feel inclined to support a party even if they make one too many mistakes. Loyalty to a political party may prevent us from considering what other parties have to offer in future elections.

Partisanship does bother us. In Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s TED talk he tells us that in the US people avoid certain well-paid jobs so they don’t have to be around people who disagree with them. There is danger in surrounding yourself with people who believe the same things as you, as it pushes you to be more extreme in your views. The events that took place in Capitol Hill, Washington, on the 6th of January show us the horror that can lead to.

The US is extremely politically divided, but how different is the UK? The LSE’s recent report on Partisanship, post-Brexit, reminds us that for a democracy to work there must be ‘mutual respect and a willingness to talk across political divides’ – taking a moment to reflect on the Brexit debates in the House of Commons, I’m not sure this can be seen. In fact, parliament doesn’t appear well designed for any form of mutuality – with backbenchers cheerleading for the cabinet with regular jeers, how do we expect to get middle ground results?

And who is to blame? Social media has revolutionised the public’s ability to participate in political discussion but let’s not forget about the democratic enemy, social media echo chambers. Algorithms create our feeds and ensure that they are filled with information that reinforces our views, so we get the cosy feeling of confirmation bias. One reason why this is done is so we keep coming back for more, and we can be used to make the organisation profit.

That alone seems problematic for creating balanced views, but there is something even more sinister, called Cambridge Analytica. A very suspicious relationship has emerged between Nigel Farage, the face of Brexit, and Steve Bannon, the vice president of Cambridge Analytica. According to whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica harvests data from Facebook profiles, without gaining permission, to identify swing voters and categorises user’s personality in great detail. Using this data, Brexit ads were tailored and deployed by Cambridge Analytica into users’ timelines to manipulate an anti- EU perspective. Polarisation was inevitable in a referendum where the vote leave campaign was so closely linked with influential data giants.

And the mainstream press is no better. There is an ideal that the media should form a fourth estate; an independent powerhouse keeping a watchful eye on the elite, in a balanced way, where all parties are equally subject to scrutiny. It appears that the opposite has happened, and polarisation is the outcome.

 Murdoch needs no introduction. In a recent BBC documentary on the media mogul, Nigel Farage openly admits to meeting in Murdoch’s London flat to discuss Brexit. So, the extreme and partisan backing of Brexit in The Sun newspaper came as no surprise. In the run-up of the 2019 election, Murdoch reportedly met with Johnson several times, and The Sun continues to back Johnson with force and creates fear of a Labour government. Murdoch’s close relationship with certain politicians has been an ongoing pattern, probably most significant is his relationship with Tony Blair, as he is godfather to Blair’s daughter. Rather than the media forming the fourth estate, it appears to have become an intertwined state with politics. Close relationships between politicians and media professionals, especially Murdoch, is showing to be a danger to the middle ground.

Partisanship thrives off the most damaging of dichotomies – “us” vs “them”. A zero-sum game, where either we win, or they do. Consider the Labour slogan, ‘for the many, not the few’. To gain momentum the leader usually creates an enemy, a source of fear, that they can save the people from. Arguably the ‘other’ in the Brexit campaign was immigrants, which has perpetuated a hostile environment based on “Brits vs immigrants”. Immigrants have falsely been portrayed as huge economic burdens, job stealers and a criminal threat. This ties into populism, a rising political notion where politicians portray themselves as for the people, against a corrupted elite – the other party is the threat the public needs saving from.

But, as part of ‘the UK in a changing Europe’ panel, Professor Bobby Duffy has said that actually, the reality of political partisanship is not as the media portrays it to be. He says that the Labour and Conservative Party both share far more in common on crucial issues, such as the NHS and the climate emergency than the media would suggest.

So why does the media produce stories that tell us Britain is sharply split down the middle? Arguably partisan media is often exciting, sensationalist and includes conflict, which makes a story grabbing to readers. Also, the agenda of the owner often plays a part – in the BBC documentary on Murdoch when he is asked about his political views, he tells them to read The Sun.

Despite this, British people are not an undiscerning mass, and we do criticise the media we read for its explicit and shocking partisanship. All the same, the media consumed will affect readers to an extent, so the media have a responsibility to better reflect reality, one where we have more in common with one another. The desire to achieve mobile voters and middle ground politics must be reinvigorated for a happier, more united, Britain.

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