The phone-hacking crisis calls for Ed Miliband to prove his dad wrong

Ralph Miliband argued that the capitalist society and state protect each other. His son must work to

Most students of sociology or politics come across the work of Ralph Miliband. His basic theory is simple: a capitalist society has a capitalist state at its beck and call. They are tied together by a "ruling class". Nobody needs to pick up the metaphorical phone -- they think the same way so they act to protect each other's interests. When people get restless, the odd concession is granted: a welfare state or free education. By and large though, the capitalists have it their own way.

A few days in to the mega and all-consuming scandal that has resulted from the News of the World's phone-hacking and News International's ability to evade any real consequences for a number of years, who is to say that Ralph Miliband wasn't right?

What has occurred is the projection -- directly and culturally -- of concentrated power that has perverted the course of justice and democracy. Just as was the case in the Watergate scandal (an over-used comparator yet seemingly apt in this case) it is not the original crime that is most revealing. It is subsequent events that tell us the most about the power of News International: police languor; political pusillanimity, and corporate cover-up.

It is very easy to see how News International and their parent, News Corporation, have been able to get the British state to do their bidding. In the year to June 2010, News International made a £73.3million annual loss. The Sun and News of the World are profitable; the Times and Sunday Times make a loss. By contrast, BSkyB's latest profits were £467million and they are shooting upwards. The two sides of Rupert Murdoch's UK business serve different functions. The newspaper side is about projection of power, while the TV side is about commercial gain. The two are closely linked.

The basic issue is one of concentration of power. Many people have alluded to this in the last few days, including Ralph Miliband's son Ed, but almost none have followed through on the consequences of that understanding. How does the News International/News Corporation power work? The newspapers provide the political leverage because voters read them, and politicians care what they write as a consequence. That leverage acts as a commercial lever to prevent strong action of politicians against the commercial interests of News Corporation. This is not corruption necessarily. It is simply how Ralph Miliband would describe the state operating in a capitalist society.

Of course, in this case, the phone is not metaphorical. It's a hotline. Politicians and News International executives have family get togethers over Christmas, fly across the world to show affectation and loyalty, employ former editors as Directors of Communication -- even discredited ones that other newspaper editors warn them against -- and fawn over leading players in the company at summer parties and the like. This is not an invisible projection of power. It's obvious, visible, and blatant. It is swaggering and self-confident collusion. It shows just how much power one media group has been able to accumulate.

Fortunately, and thanks to the work of tenacious investigative journalists and a handful of determined Labour backbenchers, the game is up. Public revulsion has called a stop to the party. Even now, there is a failure of collective media and political understanding about what this moment represents. In the latest News Corporation annual report,Moody's and S&P rated the company's outlook as "stable". What this normally means, as we have discovered, is hold on to your hats.

The initial outrage has put a block on the full takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation. The pathetically weak Press Complaints Commission has, rightly, been thrown to the wolves. The take-over postponement, which will surely inevitably mean the end of the bid, merely prevents further concentration of the media empire. And if the result of a new regulatory system is to obstruct sound investigative journalism, then that's a disaster. At worst, we could end up with a media empire whose power is undimmed, with good journalism hampered through over-reaction.

Instead, it is incumbent upon parliament to prove that democracy can properly regulate capitalism. News International/News Corporation's concentrated ownership must surely be broken up. While it was not this concentrated power that led to phone-hacking, its reality explains much of what has happened since. Newspaper ownership should be further limited. Cross-media ownership should be further restricted. Carriage of media (eg. satellite) should be separated from content provision (eg. Premiership football). This is what is required for a genuinely plural, open, creative, and diverse media where no player is so powerful that they can enjoy undue market power, and get the state to do its bidding.

So far the response to this scandal has been weak pretty much across the board. People are still afraid of confronting News Corporation and News International, such is their culturally embedded power. But this is not personal. It's not about Rupert Murdoch or any of his friends and relatives; it's about concentrations of power. It should apply equally to financial services, utility companies -- here's looking at you, British Gas -- and anywhere where power holds sway over the marketplace and politics.

Ralph Miliband spotted the dangers of corporate power subjugating the state. We have to hope he was wrong about its inevitability. In fact, let's prove that he was wrong. If there is one person who stands at the edge of this Rubicon it's Ed Miliband. After this morning's press conference, there is little doubt that he is now setting the political pace of this issue. He's found his voice, and it's a determined one. His challenge is now to use his voice wisely -- to break up a concentration of over-weaning media power.

Perhaps it is down to the son to heed to warnings of the father but prove his fatalism wrong. Democracies can act to defend the public interest. But they need men and women of courage and self-belief to do so. Ed Miliband is beginning to show he may be in possession of the courage required.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.