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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.