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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.