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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.