Lifestyle: ‘The Sun’ & Its Role In General Elections 

The phrase is that “no publicity is bad publicity,” although these might disagree. Britain’s free press is a staple of journalism, in which various papers back different parties, especially in the lead-up to general elections when the press seriously cracks down on favoured parties. Perhaps the most notable example is The Sun, the tabloid newspaper running since 1964 which has seen the press juggernaut perhaps influence the results of many general elections. These are five times The Sun played its part as a piece of persuasive press. 

1979: “Crisis? What Crisis?” 

(Photo courtesy of Huffington Post UK)

We are almost immediately breaking the rules of the title of the piece but sometimes we are just renegades like that here at TWM. 

So, although this headline was printed in January 11th 1979 and the subsequent election not until May 3rd, there is no doubting the influence this headline had on the British public – probably one of the only things anybody remembers about James Callaghan’s premiership.  

Nicknamed the Winter of Discontent by The Sun’s editor Larry Lamb, Callaghan’s popularity fell off a cliff after attempts to control inflation led to widespread strikes from lorry drivers, coal miners, carmakers, gravediggers, waste collectors, and NHS staff from across various unions.  

It was with this backdrop that The Sun printed the mocking headline “Crisis? What Crisis?”, a reference to the apparent obliviousness of Callaghan to the situation at hand.  

The book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s paints a grim picture of events, recalling: Two million workers were threatened with being laid off if the strikes continued, pigs were reported to be resorting to cannibalism as food supplies to farms ran low, supermarkets began rationing essentials such as butter and sugar, and newspapers shrank in size as supplies of newsprint dwindled. ‘The day when Brussels sprouts became a luxury,’ ran a headline in The Guardian.”  

It was against this hectic backdrop that the headline resonated with the public and highlighted the strain Britain was under, an influential factor in not only the end of Callaghan’s time as PM but also the end of Labour dominance for nearly two decades. Indeed, a vote of no confidence in 1979 saw Jim come up short and a general election called, won by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. 

James “Jim” Callaghan (Photo courtesy of BBC Wales)

Although not directly responsible, The National writers that after Callaghan’s headline his “goose was cooked.” After losing the election, Jim feared he would be remembered as the worst PM ever; “hold my beer,” said an onlooking Liz Truss. 

Leaving the office of prime minister was the end of Callaghan on a major political stage, closing out his tenure as the only politician of the 20th century to hold all four Great Offices of State.  

1983: “Do You Seriously Want This Old Man To Run Britain?” 

(Photo courtesy of Michael Foot: Labour’s Old Romantic documentary)

There may never have been any Labour leader who saw assaults from the press quite as much as the late Michael Foot. Whilst perhaps a great intellectual – writing books on Mussolini, H.G. Wells, and Jonathan Swift – Foot would never be a prime minister with his appointment seen by many as Labour shooting themselves in the foot (pun intended). 

I have elsewhere covered the donkey coat ‘scandal’ in which Foot wore what was perceived as inappropriate wear for the annual political leaders’ Cenotaph despite it being complemented by the Queen Mother. Despite his wear being unconventional but still appropriate wear, he suffered “wretched treatment,” as Neil Kinnock put it, from the press. 

Yet perhaps the most savage attacks were in the lead-up to the 1983 general election. The Sun, under Kelvin McKenzie, ran the headline: “Do You Seriously Want This Old Man To Run Britain?” 

In fact, the whole media was rather hostile to Labour, with the only major newspaper offering support being The Daily Mirror.  

Of course, the press and particularly The Sun are not the only reason for a loss, as other factors were at play (the following is an excerpt from a previous article): 

(Photo courtesy of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament)
  • The absence of moderate members who would form the Social Democrat Party (SDP). An SDP-Liberal alliance gave the liberals the best post-war result with the exception of 1945, almost beating Labour in the vote share. Labour had 8.45 million compared to the alliance’s 7.78, a difference of far less than three-quarters of a million, with many Labour voters likely turning to the centre alliance, probably aiding by a more left-wing Labour party. 
  • A too left-wing and radical manifesto. Labour supporter and author John O’Farrell called it “the worst campaign in electoral history.” This campaign included nuclear disarmament, abolishment of the House of Lords, and EU – as it now is 0 withdrawal. Considering the effort taken to join the European Economic Community (EEC) and USSR threat, some pledges were seen as reckless and endangering. Tony Blair later claimed: “I won my seat in spite of our programme, not because of it.”  
  • A Labour leadership crisis was present too with Foot being seen as incapable of leading his own party. Foot, the much older of the two, was far less adept in televised occasions. Whilst Thatcher had been a common face on TV to win support, Foot was less well prepared and present. 

The Sun, and broader media at large only compounded Foot’s image as incompetent, unprofessional, and senile, which would serve to further exacerbate Foot’s unlikeliness of being elected prime minister in 1983. 

1992: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.”

(Photo courtesy of The Conversation)

Despite seeing one of their worst electoral performances in decades in 1983, within a decade, Labour had nearly climbed back to strength. 

This was in part due to the personal image of Neil Kinnock, who “saved Labour,” according to Francis Beckett in The New Stateman. A man who made Stephen Fry nearly become a Labour politician and described as having “a brilliant, unforgettable appeal,” Kinnock found himself able to fight against the party divisions to a favourable poll rating ahead of the general election in 1992, with the Poll Tax having forced out Margaret Thatcher and causing anti-Tory upheaval.  

In the weeks leading up to the election, all results except those of The Daily Telegraph saw high Labour approval ratings, with The Mail On Sunday’s as high as 6% over the Tories. With a few exceptions, Labour saw a consistent lead. 

(Photo courtesy of iNews)

The Sun’s headline on the day of the election was really quite tame compared to other entries on this list, reading: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” This was accompanied by a picture of the Leader of the Opposition inside a lightbulb.” 

Perhaps The Sun did not quite have the same effect as previous occasions as Labour still did well, performing better than the Conservatives in terms of seats; Labour gained 40 seats as the Tories lost about the same but the Conservatives retain a majority with 14 million to 11.5 million for Labour. Originally a narrow Labour majority was scheduled so, from that perspective, maybe it did have an impact. 

At the time, The Sun was still around its peak membership with a circulation of about 3.5 million and thus felt justified to print the boasting headline “It’s The Sun Wot Won It,” on the 11th. The paper credited itself for the greatest election upset since 1992. 

1997: “The Sun Backs Blair.”

(Photo courtesy of Stewart Dye’s Blog)

Whilst 1992 saw an electoral upset since 1945, 1997 had arguably the most drastic result of any election in the post-war era.  

It would be fair to say that a clear Labour victory would have taken place with or without The Sun but their new allegiance was nonetheless the death knell for John Major’s Conservatives.  

Before we cover The Sun’s new Labour backing, we must establish why a Labour win was a certainty. Tony Blair was a zeitgeist of British development in the 1990s. In a time of Blur, the emerging internet, and football fever over Euro 96 all helped encourage a movement of hope and strength for the future and Blair was the epitome of this movement. The young, charismatic politician had not seen a single Gallop popularity poll loss since becoming Leader of the Opposition, often with his ratings at over 50%. Blair was the antithesis of John Mayor; whilst the Conservative leader was dull and emphatically grey, Blair was witty and vibrant. His image was further helped out by behind-the-scenes PR people including high-profile spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. A move to the centre helped too. Britain has traditionally rejected socialism (look at the poor results under left-wingers Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn), and although the liberal alliance lost seats in 1992, there was still a margin to pick up some votes away from the liberals, and even some Tories. This was a move away from old Labour to a ‘New Labour’.  

Blair, celebrating his historic election win.

As mentioned in passing earlier, Blair had a very conscious and careful of his media image. As such, Blair met with Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corp., the parent company of The Sun. The outcome was the paper taking New Labour’s side with headlines including “The Sun Backs Blair,” in March and “It Must Be You,” on election day, featuring a Godly, omnipotent hand pointing at Blair. 

Whether The Sun really backed Blair or saw the writing on the walls and decided to throw their weight behind the inevitable winner.  

Either way, the aftermath saw Labour score a huge landslide. Not only did the party get a near-200 seat majority but also, due to 101 elected women in Labour, the number of women in the House of Parliament doubled since the previous election. 

Moreover, 20th Century Day By Day notes: “To add insult to injury, the Tories were totally wiped out in Scotland and Wales, and had to watch as Michael Portillo – seen by many as the next Conservative leader – lost his seat.” 

2019: “Waking Up To Corbyn As PM On Friday The 13th Would Just Be The Start Of A NIGHTMARE.”

The Sun ran a barrage anti-Corbyn headlines. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

In 2019, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour saw its worst election result since the 1930s but it is still questionable whether Labour failed or the Tories succeeded – or perhaps both. 

Corbyn had grassroot support, including a huge chant in favour of him at Glastonbury but he clearly did not have the support that his campaign implied. Likely factors in his loss include too far-left policies such as hesitancy to use a nuclear deterrent, his age (he was the oldest ever candidate for the position at 70), and accusations of anti-Semitism that Corbyn did not help himself with.  

Elsewhere, Boris proved his brilliance and connection with a strong mandate, supported with the slogan “Get Brexit Done,” an issue that had dogged British politics for years and summarised the electorate’s feelings on the matter. This success took the form of large Tory victories, including in Bolsover, a safe Labour seat for decades, held by cult favourite MP Dennis Skinner. 

Loughborough University found that the Conservatives were the only party with overall positive press coverage with a press score of over +25 whilst Labour had nearly –75. Age groups over 40 saw a Conservative majority. 

(Photo courtesy of The Evening Standard)

The Sun was just one of many anti-Corbyn papers. Headlines ranged from “Waking up to Corbyn as PM on Friday the 13th would just be the start of a NIGHTMARE,” to “Save Brexit, Save Britain,” with Boris in a bright lightbulb and Corbyn in presiding in a dark lightbulb over a grey “Marxist” Britain. 

Perhaps the most brutish however was a more prolonged put-down of the member for Islington North read: “Jeremy Corbyn is the most dangerous man ever to stand for high office in Britain – use your vote to stop him. This Thursday we can vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, get Brexit over the line in January, finally defeat the Remain and second referendum campaigns and move on with our lives. A vote for anyone else will open the door of Number 10 to Corbyn and his extremists — sending Britain tumbling into an abyss. It is as simple as that.” 

This would have had a sharp effect, considering how The Sun had the second-highest readership just behind The Metro.   


The Sun, a staple of the British press, whether you see it as a bastion of journalism or a shitty tabloid – and we would like to stress for legal reasons that we certainly do not see it as the latter! – certainly has proven its effects.  

Although always very hard to accurately attribute to election results, The Sun’s influence is undeniable and will likely play a large part in future general elections even if dwindling in circulation.  

To quote The Stranglers: “There’s always The Sun.” 

More From This Author