Miliband's defence of his father against the Daily Mail is a defining moment

The Labour leader's response to the smearing of his father is a demonstration of his commitment in his speech to "stand up to the strong".

After taking on Rupert Murdoch, Ed Miliband has stood up to the most feared editor on Fleet Street - Paul Dacre. In a lengthy piece in tomorrow's Daily Mail, he takes aim at the paper for running a gutter attack on his father, Ralph, under the headline "The man who hated Britain". He writes:

It’s part of our job description as politicians to be criticised and attacked by newspapers, including the Daily Mail. It comes with the territory. The British people have great wisdom to sort the fair from the unfair. And I have other ways of answering back.

But my Dad is a different matter. He died in 1994. I loved him and he loved Britain. And there is no credible argument in the article or evidence from his life which can remotely justify the lurid headline and its accompanying claim that it would "disturb everyone who loves this country".

Many politicians have seen members of their family traduced by the Mail but none have ever responded as Miliband has. When they and their relatives were attacked, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown didn't confront Dacre, they appeased him. Miliband has taken a different path; this will rightly come to be seen as a defining moment of his leadership.

After the Mail alleged that his father loathed Britain on the basis of an adolescent diary entry, his son points to his record of service in the Royal Navy, mentioned only in passing by the paper: "He arrived, separated from his mother and sister,  knowing no English but found a single room to share with my grandfather. He was determined to better himself and survive. He worked as a removal man,  passed exams at Acton Technical College and was accepted to University. Then he joined the Royal Navy.

"He did so because he was determined to be part of the fight against the Nazis and to help his family hidden in Belgium. He was fighting for Britain.

"When I was growing up, he didn’t talk much about the Holocaust years because it was a deep trauma for both sides of my family. But he did talk about his naval service.

"The Daily Mail’s article on Saturday used just a few words to brush over the years my father spent fighting for his adopted country in the Second World War. But it played a bigger part in his life than that."

But while defending his father against the Mail's specific charges, he also uses the piece to make a wider argument about press standards and ethics. Here's the closing passage:

Britain has always benefitted from a free press. Those freedoms should be treasured. They are vital for our democracy. Journalists need to hold politicians like me to account - none of us should be given an easy ride - and I look forward to a robust 19 months between now and the General Election.

But what appeared in the Daily Mail on Saturday was of a different order all together. I know they say ‘you can’t libel the dead’ but you can smear them.

Fierce debate about politics does not justify character assassination of my father, questioning the patriotism of a man who risked his life for our country in the Second World War, or publishing a picture of his gravestone with a tasteless pun about him being a ‘grave socialist’.

The Daily Mail sometimes claims it stands for the best of British values of decency. But something has really gone wrong when it attacks the family of a politician - any politician - in this way. It would be true of an attack on the father of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, or mine.

There was a time when politicians stayed silent if this kind of thing happened, in the hope that it wouldn’t happen again. And fear that if they spoke out, it would make things worse. I will not do that. The stakes are too high for our country for politics to be conducted in this way. We owe it to Britain to have a debate which reflects the values of how we want the country run.

With this intervention, Miliband has drawn a line in the sand, signalling that, unlike previous leaders, he will not tolerate press abuses for fear of political retribution.

In the striking section on "leadership and character" in his conference speech last week, he declared: "The real test of leadership is not whether you stand up to the weak, that’s easy; it’s whether you stand up to the strong and know who to fight for." Today, Miliband has shown that he is prepared to live up to those words.

Whether or not they share his politics (and the comments section of the Mail's website suggests many readers take a more favourable view of Miliband's proposed energy price freeze than their paper), Mail readers will respect the simple decency of a son coming to the defence of his father. Milband's article is another important step towards showing the country what kind of leader he is.

Update: While publishing Miliband's response, the Mail has also unbelievably reprinted the orginal piece and an editorial defending its actions. A Labour spokesman told me: "Ed Miliband wrote his right to reply article because he wanted to state clearly that his father loved Britain. He wanted the Daily Mail to treat his late father's reputation fairly. Rather than acknowledge it has smeared his father, tonight the newspaper has repeated its original claim. This simply diminishes the Daily Mail further. 

"It will be for people to judge whether this newspaper's treatment of a World War Two veteran, Jewish refugee from the Nazis and distinguished academic reflects the values and decency we should all expect in our political debate."

Ed Miliband speaks during a Q&A with party members at the Labour conference in Brighton last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.