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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.