Does Ed Miliband have a plan B?

The Labour leader tried to put a brave face on Thursday’s results. But he was fooling no one, least

It was a "quadruple whammy". The election of President Salmond. Failure to secure an overall majority in Wales. The crushing of the electoral reform dream. And, most staggering of all, defeat by the Tories in England in the share of the popular vote.

In last week's New Statesman, a senior Ed Miliband adviser said: "Every single hurdle that's been put in his way . . . he's got over." Not this one. Thursday was Ed Miliband's first big electoral test since becoming leader. He failed it.

But, and it's a big but, Labour's leader has also been presented with a corridor of opportunity. A narrow escape route has opened up. The question is whether he has the courage to traverse it.

Ever since defeating his brother, Miliband has in effect been a prisoner of that victory. His win, endorsed by a minority of his parliamentary colleagues and party members, came with a mandate to reject New Labour's brand of neoliberalism and construct a "progressive majority".

Unable to expand his political base, he has, through a combination of choice and necessity, stuck with that strategy, and the tiny but influential Compass-site clique that advocated it.

Go Chris? Or go solo?

To the extent that there has been a meaningful discussion about Labour's direction over the past six months, the options have boiled down to this: should the party appeal to a small and large "L" liberal constituency, or to a small and large "C" conservative one? By and large, Miliband has attempted the former. And the results of that approach were there for all to see on Thursday night and Friday morning.

Before last Thursday's elections, a shadow cabinet source told me: "Everyone's watching very closely to see how Ed responds. If things go badly have we got our own plan B?"

The answer appeared to have been provided in a briefing to yesterday's Observer. "The Labour leader says disaffected Lib Dems should stand with him", ran the introduction. The article went on:

While Miliband insists that his objective is still a majority Labour government and his immediate focus is on working with the Lib Dems against Tory policies, his overtures suggest that the party is prepared to plan for the possibility of a Lab-Lib deal after the next election.

Neal Lawson, director of Compass, welcomed this approach: "Ed Miliband knows he can't win a two versus one election against the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. And the best he can hope for right now is a progressive coalition government with a Liberal Democrat party that has dumped Nick Clegg."

The reaction among others was less effusive. "Has Ed Miliband gone mad?" asked one backbench MP who supported him for the leadership. "This is mental. The task is to define Labour and hit the Tories," said another. "I don't get it," said a shadow cabinet source. "Ed said: 'The voters have sent a message to David Cameron'. They did. It was, 'Oh well, carry on if you must.' "

Another senior Labour insider put it this way: "Ed has a clear choice. He can chase after a non-existent progressive majority, or he can try to bring middle- and working-class Tory voters home to Labour. Or, to put it another way, he can try to win on his own, or lose with Chris Huhne."

Ditch the compass

This is the choice, and opportunity, Miliband faces. If he wants, he can use the election results to relaunch his strategy. It would not be seen as a U-turn, but as an empathetic response to the voters.

It would show that he possesses the pragmatism he frequently accuses Cameron of lacking. And it would communicate that he has not given up on the prospect of victory.

There is obviously a downside. It would also mean confronting some of his erstwhile supporters. Policy shifts on important areas such as the economy, law and order, benefit reform, immigration and constitutional reform would be required.

But those internal battles would assist in giving him the definition he currently lacks, and would draw in support from those who to date have been wary of his style of leadership.

There are also signs that many of his own inner circle would back such a strategy. "The word among the shadow cabinet is a lot of Ed's people themselves want to dump all this progressive nonsense. It's only really Ed himself and the Compass mob who are clinging to it."

Ed Miliband tried to put a brave face on Thursday's results. But he was fooling no one, least of all himself.

The consensus was clear: south of the border, the big winner was Cameron and the big loser Clegg. If Labour's leader wants to take the fight to the former he cannot do so by appealing to a tiny rump of Liberal ultras clinging to the tattered legacy of the latter.

Miliband has a plan B. The question is whether he has the strength and courage to implement it.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder