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Britain’s Wealthiest Needn’t Worry

Billionaire John Caudwell's support for Labour over Starmer's persecution of socialists and support for capitalism has been unscrutinised by a media class showing no curiosity for whose interests next week's government will serve, writes Tom Mills.

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The Labour Party recently unveiled a new political apostate from the capitalist class, the billionaire mobile phones and property magnate, John Caudwell, who announced that he would be voting Labour for the first time in his life this general election. This was apparently big news. A billionaire who gave £500,000 to Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in 2019 because he ‘couldn’t possibly stand a Corbyn government’ is five years later planning to vote for Keir Starmer. 

The propaganda coup was amplified by the BBC, which at times looked more like a media partner for an organised political event than an independent news organisation. Its political editor Chris Mason pre-recorded an enthusiastic interview with Caudwell at Labour’s request, and the story was reported across the BBC’s platforms throughout the day. It was promoted by the Labour Party leadership on social media, and picked up by the national and local press, and other broadcasters. That evening Caudwell was invited onto BBC Newsnight to again discuss his political change of heart. 

John Caudwell is no stranger to the BBC television studios. Back in 2019, he went head-to-head with the then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the BBC, complaining of divisive rhetoric and the unfriendly political environment. He said McDonnell’s remark that ‘nobody needs or deserves’ to be a billionaire ‘frightens the living daylights out of me’, adding that ‘nearly every wealthy person I know is thinking of leaving the UK, including me, if Labour get in.’ Some had already left. Jim Ratcliffe, another billionaire who has endorsed Starmer fled to Monaco in 2018 for fear of Jeremy Corbyn entering 10 Downing Street. 

Britain’s billionaires are no longer afraid. In his interview with Chris Mason, John Caudwell emphasised that he was still committed to ‘conservative principles’ and that his political views remained the same. But he had been impressed by Starmer having seen off ‘the loony Left’ in the Labour Party, and their ‘extreme socialist policies.’ Later, on Newsnight he was even more candid. ‘What Keir has done,’ he said, ‘is taken all the Left out of the Labour Party, and he’s come out with a set of values and principles in complete alignment with my views as a commercial capitalist.’ 

Why, though, was this man’s plan for 4 July a major news story? 

Capital’s B Team

The editorial rationale for the Caudwell story can’t have been his voting intention per se. Even if every billionaire in the UK moved to Caudwell’s constituency and switched their vote en masse to Labour, they alone wouldn’t be nearly enough to swing it for the party there this week. Rather the significance lay in what the endorsement of the Labour Party by a billionaire former Tory donor reveals about the changed character of the two major parties in Westminster. It does appear to be illustrative of a much broader trend. John Armitage, founder of the hedge fund Egerton Capital, who has previously donated over £3 million to the Conservative Party, has donated to Labour since 2021 often directly to Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting’s offices.

Another former Conservative donor, Richard Walker, who as recently as last year was on the Conservative Party’s candidate list, also recently switched his support to Starmer saying, ‘this is not because I have had a radical change of heart’, but ‘because Labour under Keir Starmer has progressively moved towards the ground on which I have always stood’. The son of Iceland founder Malcolm Walker is quoted in Labour’s manifesto and he spoke at the launch event. More recently, the multimillionaire Theo Paphitis, made famous by his role on the BBC’s business programme, Dragon’s Den, said he was backing Starmer’s Labour hoping to see ‘stability’ and ‘some adults in the room.’  

Insofar as Caudwell’s support for Labour is illustrative of a broader phenomenon namely the superrich lending their support to Labour then the story was, arguably at least, justifiable in editorial terms. But for the BBC and other notionally impartial news organisations to report it in a wholly uncritical fashion, especially during a general election campaign, is a remarkable dereliction of duty.  

It should go without saying but evidently does need to be said that journalists should generally avoid actively participating in PR stunts orchestrated by a political party, and that when such events are reported they require critical distance and information, commentary, and context, which may be at odds with a party’s communications strategy.  

The point of impartial political journalism is to adequately reflect a range of opinion, and for a significant chunk of the electorate a notionally socialist party attracting the support of conservative billionaires is more a cause for concern than celebration. This alone should have been enough to prompt some critical questions around Labour’s political trajectory from the BBC. Yet it was reported as if the backing of billionaires was little more than a political neutral vote of confidence in the party’s competence for government. How did we arrive at this point?

The Billionaires’ Broadcasting Company

As the Media Reform Coalition has detailed in its regular Who Owns the Media reports, large parts of the news media are controlled by billionaires, or ‘centi-millionaires,’ and these organisations have for decades been able to shape the political agenda of the broader media system, and to police the boundaries of acceptable politics. It is precisely because of the capacity for wealthy people to promote their interests through privately owned media that public media is so important to a healthy democracy. But the BBC and the broader public service system of which it is part has been decimated by decades of underfunding, commercialisation, and political interference. 

My book on the BBC offered a fairly broad sociological analysis of its journalism and managerial culture. A particular focus of my research, though, was on the culture and practices of its economics and business reporting. Through internal documents and interviews I was able to trace a long and quite deliberate process of cultural and structural change at the BBC that began in the late 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s. Up to the 1980s, the BBC had adopted a social democratic model of reporting in which industry was understood to compromise of two sides, labour on the one hand and owners and management on the other, and the economy was understood primarily in terms of how government policy and investment impacted on employment and wages. 

With the overturning of the post-war consensus and the decisive blow against organised labour in the 1980s, the BBC’s reporting of the economy began to shift. Following a somewhat uneasy mix of high-minded neoclassical economics and market populism in the 1990s, there emerged by the 2000s an explicitly pro-business approach to journalism that saw the interests of businesses, workers, and consumers as basically harmonious. Profits were to be celebrated, and entrepreneurs to be venerated. Even with the global financial crisis of 2008, there was little change to this editorial culture.  

Polling has consistently shown that the UK public do not trust business leaders much more than they trust politicians. Yet the BBC is largely incapable even of recognising even billionaires let alone big business and rentiers as a group with a distinct set of economic and political interests. More than that, its programmes have often celebrated these wealth extractors as wealth creators — and even as public intellectuals and role models. John Caudwell giving his personal endorsement for a change in the party of government whilst seated on his sofa in the most expensive house in Britain, is a rather grim culmination of this long process of elite capture of the country’s public media. 

The Communications Wing of the Establishment

Alongside that slow, but in the long run very striking, change in economics reporting which occurred across the UK media not just at the BBC there has been a parallel and related shift, with the independence of news journalism eroded through commercialisation and politicisation. Perhaps the most well-known surface-level manifestation of this trend is the ‘revolving door’ between journalism and politics, which at one level is evident in avowedly partisan appointments to top of the BBC and other public bodies like Ofcom, and at another level in the regular circulation of personnel between journalism and political communications. 

News journalism naturally leads to a degree of interdependence between reporters and sources, and without strong counter-veiling pressures, politics and political journalism will tend to coalesce. This is exactly what has happened as the sector has become more commercialised. As the borders between the fields of politics and journalism have broken down, their interests have increasingly converged, and we have seen the emergence of an incestuous political-media elite.  

The Corbyn period powerfully highlighted this, with a united front forming to fight back the scourge of left populism comprising the majority of the political class and almost the entirety of the country’s conservative and centrist media. It was only with the defeat of Corbynism and the victory of this historic bloc that the Conservative project was finally allowed to collapse under its own contradictions and incompetence.  

Now with the Conservative Party, circling the political plughole, political journalists are displaying a level of scrutiny and irreverence that was rarely shown during their 14 years in power with the notable exceptions of ‘partygate’ and Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership leading some conservative commentators to complain of a bias against the party. The official opposition, meanwhile, which is set to walk into government, has been subject to so little critical media scrutiny that even mainstream commentators have started to voice concerns about the democratic legitimacy of the next government. To anyone paying close enough attention, the general election looks very much like a changing of the political guard. 

The problems, though, go much deeper than a failure to properly interrogate the political agenda and campaigning strategies of an incoming government that is now clearly set to win by default and this is serious enough in of itself. The political dishonesty in this election around tax and spend plans, that last week was lamented by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Starmer project which in reality is the project of a right-wing faction of the party that has always been dominant within Parliament and the party bureaucracy has from the very beginning of Starmer’s leadership campaign been fundamentally dishonest. The Labour leader essentially defrauded the membership to take total control of the party machinery, drove the Left out of the party, disempowered the membership, and rejected every policy or position associated with the previous leadership. All this achieved with the support of wealthy donors and the tacit support of the political-media establishment.  

Towards a Democratic Media

In the last few decades, the media system in this country, and the political system with which it is so intertwined, could fairly be described as post-democratic, and at times it has been anti-democratic. The social interests the Conservative Party has traditionally represented, many of whom are now jumping ship to Labour, have long recognised the importance of media and communications to maintaining their class power. But the centre-left in this country has failed to take this question seriously enough, hoping either to work around or through the existing structures. What is needed is a combination of dedicated support for alternative media and communications infrastructure, and an agenda for structural change of the sort that we at the Media Reform Coalition have outlined in our Media Manifesto. Without this, any transformative political project hoping to build a more equal and environmentally sustainable future will not succeed.  

The former BBC and Channel 4 broadcaster, Michael Crick, who stands out among mainstream political reporters for his critical reporting on the Labour Right, wrote last week that he hoped the media would, once the popularity of the new Starmer government has tanked, reflect on the easy ride they gave Labour in this campaign. Frankly, there is zero chance of this. There has been no critical reflection from the media on the role it played in supporting the Tories whilst they decimated this country’s economy and brought its public institutions and infrastructure to the brink of collapse, and there’s no reason to think they will behave any different once they have ushered Starmer into Downing Street. We can moralise about the failings of the media-political class. We can lament their lack of intelligence and integrity, and we can hope and pray that one day they will do better. But until we can change the structures in which they operate, they will just carry on much as before.