A former tabloid Lobby journalist once told me, ‘they have to know what they are going to write about next, if they don’t know, then how can they tell their editor what it will be’.
The ‘they’ in question here is the Parliamentary Lobby; that grand old institution dating back to 1803 when the Commons speaker first formally accepted the right for journalists to attend debates.
What this veteran of Lobby journalism was explaining to me was the Lobby’s obsession with the ongoing ‘narrative’ – essentially the next two or three likely steps in the UK’s political history. Every party has an ongoing narrative, the ‘big beasts’ in each party does as well. This is the journalists’ safety blanket or get out of jail free card for when the editor calls wanting to know what is going to happen next. If there is broad agreement as to the likely course of events then no single correspondent is going to find themselves writing something that in no way matches all other reporting. If that happened then their editor would wonder why they had got it so wrong.
After Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader on Saturday, political correspondents were very quick in setting out the narrative for him as leader, the wider Labour party and, in turn, the likely impact this will have on the coalition government but particularly David Cameron.
A review of the last two day’s political coverage can be summarised in just a few points which set out how events over the next few months will be reported:
- Story line: ‘Red Ed’ Miliband owes his victory to the big powerful unions
Future narrative: ‘Labour will lurch to the left’ or ‘Unions will be disappointed as Miliband refuses to bow to their demands’
- Story line: New Labour is dead
Future narrative: ‘Labour sees bounce in polls as Miliband revives tired party’ or ‘Looney left threaten to take Labour back to the 1980s’
- Story line: Conservatives happy with Ed Miliband’s victory
Future narrative: ‘Conservatives underestimated Ed Miliband’ or 'David Cameron stamps his authority on the coalition'
- Story line: David Miliband considers leaving front line politics
Future narrative: ‘Ed Miliband secures first victory in persuading brother to serve’ or ‘Ed Miliband’s authority questioned as brother refuses to back him’
To watch the Lobby in full pack mentality is something quite extraordinary – to be on the receiving end of their perceived wisdom is sometimes a brutal experience that has destroyed many a political career. The narrative moves quickest when all the journalists and politicians are in close proximity; so conference season can set out a trajectory that is sometimes very difficult for the political parties to influence for many months to come.