Ed Miliband might have read too much into phone-hacking

The Labour leader's stance against the Murdochs was a turning point of sorts, but it didn't change t

Earlier this year, when the phone-hacking scandal was monopolising the news, quite a few MPs seemed baffled - not by the anger itself (no one could doubt that appalling behaviour had been exposed at the News of the World), but by the apparent scale and momentum of events. Plainly it was a huge news story and journalists like few things more than writing collectively about themselves. But the question being asked inside the Westminster village was "how big could this get?" There were some stunning personnel changes. The Met top brass resigned; a mass-circulation Sunday newspaper closed its doors. But when the dust had settled, how different would the landscape really look?

MPs weren't hearing about hacking from their constituents. The two issues most often raised on the doorstep and in surgeries continued to be the economy and immigration. That made a marked contrast with expenses scandal, which ate the political agenda much as hacking did but which also turned into a huge issue for individual MPs on their home turf. People still talk about it. Pollsters say it is one of the few things that those voters who are generally uninterested in politics can recall about Westminster goings on. That is not the case with hacking. For parliament and the media and the Murdoch family, it is big news. For everyone else, it is part of a background blur of shabbiness and name-calling - the relentless and inchoate hum that tells people politicians and journalists are generally scummy, but not much else.

One senior shadow cabinet minister I spoke to at the time expressed it in interesting terms, I think, when he considered the possibility that it was a "Diana moment - where everything seems to change and in fact nothing changes." There was a short burst of hysteria - a particular national mood - and then it dispersed. The monarchy changed a bit; the paparazzi didn't change at all. Business continued mostly as usual.

James Murdoch's appearance before a parliamentary committee today was important, revealing and necessary. But it is not a national event. It doesn't stoke up wider feelings of anger and rage about hacking. There was a fire there once, but it has gone out.

This is something to which Labour and Ed Miliband should be paying careful attention. The phone-hacking scandal was his moment. He made a difficult and brave judgement call - took a risk - and got it right. It was a turning point in his leadership. But Miliband and his team read more into it than that. They tend to interpret the success over phone-hacking as a sign that there are untapped reserves of political capital available for the candidate who takes on powerful vested interests and wins. If Labour could reverse the orthodoxy that said you have suck up to the Murdoch empire, what other orthodoxies of recent political memory might be ripe for reversal? It was an episode that emboldened Miliband and encouraged him to develop more broadly the language of "vested interests" and"ripping up the rule book" and "predatory capitalism" as expressed in his party conference speech and in last week's article in the Observer praising the St Paul's protest.

I don't doubt that this is an intriguing line of thinking and that it might prove fertile political terrain for the leader of the opposition. Maybe it is, as Labour must hope, the kernel of a winning strategy. And I know, of course, that it is premised on more than just the buzz that came from banging in some political goals during the phone-hacking saga. But that was certainly part of it and it is instructive how unmoved most people (outside Labour circles and the Guardian) really are by the issue. Maybe they should care more. The accrual of power and its abuse in the Murdoch empire -not to mention allegations of criminal behaviour - are serious matters. But I'm not persuaded that many voters are ready to read across from that to anything like the conclusions that the Labour leadership has drawn.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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