Local journalism has a ready-made cure for the Government’s chronic cloth ears

The 2016 EU referendum was supposedly won on the ability of the Brexit camp to reach beyond the Westminster/media bubble and speak to real people.

The history being written about the 2019 general election suggests the Conservatives won because they spoke more effectively to the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies across the North of England than Labour. What the ‘Red Wall’ responded to remains unclear: Was it ‘Get Brexit Done?’, was it ‘Can’t Trust Corbyn’ or was it the promise to ‘level up the North,’ whatever that odd last phrase means.

My guess – and it’s just a guess as anyone who claims to speak for the North on the grounds of living in the North (I do), or having lived there is normally wrong, given the North is actually 15m people – is that it was a combination of the Brexit/Corbyn arguments.

Whichever it was, events over the past few weeks have suggested that far from being in tune with the country at large, the current government is more out of touch with life beyond the M25 than any other in recent history.

While the Andy Burnham v the Government standoff dominated the headlines over the last week (and you’ll find no better coverage of it than from the Manchester Evening News), it’s perhaps via the vox pops on telly that you get a rounded sense of how people feel: Broadly, it’s fed up and confused, with many citing a loss of faith in ministers.

But perhaps a more stark example of the Government ‘losing the country’ is the free school meals fiasco. At its heart, it’s not a complex situation (unlike the response to Covid): In a time of national crisis, should the government step in to help ensure the most vulnerable children are fed?

The emotional, and human, answer is of course: yes. There is an argument which allows some to reach the answer of ‘no’ but it’s a very complex one, and requires cartwheels throughout government policy. In short, in a world where soundbites often carry the argument, the government is on the wrong side of this one.

The fact that at the time of writing (Sunday, four days after the free school meals vote), Tory MPs are still trying to justify their decision, and blaming the ‘abuse’ they claim to be getting on deputy labour leader Angela Rayner for using the phrase ‘Tory scum’ in Parliament, rather than seeing it as a response to their actions, further speaks to a populist government losing touch with popular opinion.

(Or of a large number of newly-elected Tory politicians who never really did the groundwork to connect with their constituencies, and instead rode the coat-tails of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Government to blame backbenchers for not raising the pitfalls, if they really didn’t already know.)

The pandemic has shrunk many people’s immediate worlds. It has made local more relevant than ever and has, I think, played a part in such a strong reaction to the free school meals vote – both in terms of anger but also in working together to solve the problem within communities.

It’s one thing to say you’re in tune with life outside the Westminster bubble, but actions, often, speak louder than words. On that basis, this Government is wasting a golden opportunity to reset relations with the regions, by failing to take regional press seriously. And in the process, missing a chance to cure its chronic case of cloth ears.

To an extent, this Government has done more than others to engage with local press. The sight of local reporters at PM briefings has been very welcome, but it risks being tokenistic if nothing more substantial emerges.

Daily briefings, virtually, for regional political reporters would be a start. Not only does it help get the Government message beyond a Westminster-centric press bubble, it also would help the Government understand what matters in different regions of the country.

The scale of the free schools meal backlash is clear. In Liverpool, Liverpool Fc has stepped in to feed hungry kids, reports the Echo. Pubs in Sheffield are offering free meals, reports The Star in Sheffield. BirminghamLive mapped every business helping out. Cafes offering free food in Teesside are banning Tory MPs at the same time, reported GazetteLive. In Sunderland, a tea room is offering free meals. The list goes on, and on.

This would have been clear were Government engaging effectively with regional media on a daily basis, across the country. Local news via the regional press reaches more people than ever before. It is not a media you can dismiss as being politically biased or irrelevant ‘because no-one reads you anymore’ (copyright: local councils everywhere in the early 2000s) because neither point is true.

This could work via a lobby-style briefing/q and a via videolink for a different region on a given day of each week, for example. Or weekly ministerial briefings specifically for the regional press. It might not always be comfortable for those answering the questions, but they’d get their message to more people, and a real sense of the issues which are resonating locally too.

It’s easy for regional media to be dismissed as parochial, or put to one side because its diversity makes it difficult to manage centrally from a government department press office. But both are actually strengths: In tune with what people in a local area are thinking, and therefore worth engaging with properly.

Local news has to be representative of local priorities and views because if it’s not, it can’t survive – be that in print, or online. For any Government, that must be worth engaging with daily.

To be fair, the Government has done a lot to help keep regional media upright during the pandemic, with a major advertising campaign. Now the spirit which made them step in with advertising needs to be applied to the way Government deals with local media on daily basis: The government might have lost step with large parts of the country, but local media hasn’t – as borne out by the relative reslience of print sales during the pandemic, and the remarkable loyal online audience growth seen in many places too.

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