Miliband has nothing to lose from standing by Leveson

The Labour leader's stance won't win him many friends on Fleet Street but no one should believe the press will swing the next election.

Each side in the Leveson debate naturally prefers to cast their position in terms of highest principle. Ed Miliband champions the cause of victims of cynical and grotesque press intrusion; David Cameron resists the subordination of ancient liberties to the dead hand of state regulation. There are, of course, other calculations at work.

The Prime Minister has pulled out of cross-party talks aimed at finding a compromise Leveson-lite model and thereby precipitated a vote in parliament at the start of next week. In practice, there may have been some arcane middle way that guarantees free speech and also gives legal force to mechanisms supporting victims of shabby practice seeking redress – but no-one could see what it looked like and there were no political points on offer for waiting around to find it.

Cameron surely realised that any version of regulation with a statutory underpinning would be denounced as the thin end of a Stasi-shaped censorship wedge by most newspapers, while anything less would be presented as craven capitulation to press baron pressure.

He has chosen to weather the charge of cronyism if it means being feted on Fleet Street. In fact, he made that choice the moment the Leveson report was published, when – after a skim read – he saw that he was spared the most conspiratorial interpretation of his and Jeremy Hunt’s relations with News International and felt exonerated. That day he announced he preferred to avoid statutory regulation and the inky praise was duly dispersed in most papers the following morning.

Miliband, by contrast, could hardly renege on his own commitment to stand by the Leveson process, which meant, to some degree at least, seeing its proposals enacted in law. The creation of the inquiry is seen by many on the Labour side as their leader’s finest hour. Denouncing Rupert Murdoch’s Evil Empire and demanding justice for the victims was a gamble that looked at the time to have paid off handsomely. It was a concrete piece of evidence of the Labour leader’s otherwise rather abstract claim to be a crusader against stale orthodoxies and cosy establishments.

As it happens, Miliband didn’t destroy the feral Fleet Street beast or prise it away from its prejudiced proprietors. He just made them angry. Cameron surely recognises that it does him no harm to befriend the wounded animal, hoping to benefit when it savages the leader of the opposition – as it certainly will. It might, in that context, be tempting to see Miliband’s dedication to the Leveson cause as a blunder. It certainly doesn’t win him many friends in the journalistic fraternity.

But then again, how likely was it really that the Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Telegraph, the Standard or the Times were ever going to support Miliband? Their editorial positions are firmly entrenched on the right. When they attack the government it tends to be in the shrillest terms for lacking conservative rigour. What could Miliband possibly do to appeal to those organs that would also be consistent with the person he is and the politics he wants to pursue? One of the things he has going for him – something more thoughtful Tory MPs privately concede – is that he is recognised in Westminster as a man who believes in something other than raw political gain. The Miliband candidacy, come the election, will be presented in terms of a leader who stands by his convictions, even if it doesn’t look popular or clever at the time. Leveson is one of those things. (I don’t say this because I’m persuaded it will work, only because I strongly suspect this is how the issue will be viewed within Team Miliband.)

And, come May 2015, what difference will the newspapers make? Who under the age of 30 buys a newspaper these days? Could the Conservative-supporting press swing the election for Cameron in 2010? Did a concerted, ferocious press assault on the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the Eastleigh by-election cost them the seat? No.

The painful truth for print journalists (and I know it’s painful, because I am one and it hurts) is that obsolescence is creeping upon us at an alarming rate. The public are barely more respectful of newspaper hacks than they are of politicians, so no-one is impressed when the latter defend the freedoms of the former and are thanked for it with lavish praise in editorial columns read mostly by other journalists and politicians. Besides, no newspaper will endorse a candidate who looks like a loser. By 2015 that cap could just as easily fit Cameron as Miliband.

Ultimately, each side in this Leveson row has chosen the path that is rational given his circumstances. Cameron has nothing to gain by making enemies on the right-wing corner of Fleet Street and Miliband has nothing much to lose.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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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.