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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.