Miliband v the Mail, Gordon Brown’s confessions and football’s endgame

The Mail gave Ed Miliband an opportunity to show that, far from being a calculating figure who knifed his brother, he is motivated by a profound love of “my Dad”.

When politicians are subjected to a personal but non-libellous attack in a newspaper, the usual practice is to ignore it. A response spreads the muck, bringing it to wider attention, and makes the politician seem thin-skinned and easily rattled. The editor and writers responsible will congratulate themselves. “That struck home,” they will say to each other, enjoying the free publicity.

By replying in the Daily Mail to an article that branded his father, Ralph, who died in 1994, as “The man who hated Britain”, Ed Miliband defied the rulebook. “It’s part of our job description as politicians to be criticised and attacked,” he acknowledged in a right of reply published on Tuesday 1 October. “. . . But my Dad is a different matter.” The result was predictable. On the same page as Miliband’s reply but with more dramatic presentation, the Mail republished an edited version of the offending piece by its long-serving hatchet-man Geoffrey Levy, with added italics and fresh slurs. It also published a leader, headlined “An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”.

So why did Miliband do it? Why did he not treat the Mail’s characteristically mean and over-the-top attack with what Harold Wilson’s chancellor George Brown would call “a complete ignoral”, pointing out, if questioned about it, that the Mail supported Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s? It’s the politics, stupid. Miliband’s leadership has been haunted by the public perception that he stabbed his brother, David, in the back. That is all a large section of the electorate knows about him. The memoirs of the former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride gave him a chance, with or without his know­ledge and connivance, to turn that around. According to McBride, Miliband stood for the leadership as an “ultimate tribute” to his father, whose “vision”, he feared, would be “traduced” by David’s Blairite opinions.

In the public mind, Miliband thinks, filial loyalty – to a D-Day hero – will trump the charges of fraternal disloyalty. The Mail gave him a further opportunity to show that, far from being the cold, calculating figure who knifed his brother, he is motivated by a profound love of “my Dad”. The paper that supports family values should approve.

Rusbridger of sighs

The Guardian’s online presence in the US is so strong that the New Yorker thinks it merits a 9,000-word essay. But with average daily print circulation now below 200,000, the prospects in London are gloomier. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, tells the New Yorker that he “can imagine” printing on certain days only and going completely paperless in five to ten years. I hear, though, that Andrew Miller, the paper’s chief exe­cutive, tells colleagues that it needs only 50,000 average daily sales to justify staying in print. That is 983 more than the Independent’s single-copy sales in August.

Ham-fisted

I tired of football many years ago and what happened to Neil Kinnock recently at Craven Cottage, where the home team was playing Cardiff, illustrates why. Watching with his grandchildren, Kinnock was ejected from his seat at “the home end” for celebrating a Cardiff goal. I once rang West Ham, a team supported by my two sons, requesting three tickets for a match against my home town, Leicester. I was asked which team we supported. I explained our divided family and asked for seats in a non-partisan section. No such thing, I was told, and given a stern lecture about how, if I sat in the West Ham section, I should not applaud if Leicester scored. As it happened, my team gave no reason to smile, though my faint squeak of anticipation when a shot went within 15 yards of West Ham’s goal drew several angry looks.

Always a frown, with Gordon Brown

The Confessions of Gordon Brown, which my wife and I saw at the Trafalgar Studios in London the other night, makes compelling theatre. Ian Grieve’s monologue gives an extraordinarily accurate impression of Brown, down to every twitch of the facial muscles. But what Grieve conveys most memorably, largely through eye contact with the audience, is how Brown’s commanding personality, allied to physical presence, can simultaneously attract and repel.

One understands why Brown had such devoted acolytes. One also understands why he was a disaster on television. No matter how large the screen, the medium is too insipid to contain large and complex personalities. Having Brown on a box in the living room was rather like having the Mona Lisa in the outside loo or listening to Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand on an old transistor.

Stand up for teachers

From my friend in Barnsley, a retired teacher: “Why the fuss about politicians speaking without notes for an hour? I used to do it three or four times a day. But I never got a standing ovation.”

It wasn't only Ed who didn't take kindly to his father's character assassination in the Daily Mail. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.