Labour keeps up its attack on the Daily Mail as cracks appear in the paper's defence

Deputy editor Jon Steafel admits that it was an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

The first cracks are beginning to appear in the Daily Mail's defence of its smearing of Ralph Miliband. The paper's deputy editor Jon Steafel made a rare public appearance on last night's Newsnight and conceded that it may have been an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

It was a redoubtable Alastair Campbell who led the charge on the programme, declaring: "You [Emily Maitlis] said the Mail is a formidable opponent. The Mail is not a formidable opponent because it's run by a bully and a coward and, like most cowards, he's a hypocrite as well. Paul Dacre hasn't got the guts to come on this programme and defend something that I know Jon Steafel believes is not defensible."

He added: "These people do not believe in genuine debate. If you do not conform to Paul Dacre's narrow, twisted view of the world as all of his employees, like Steafel, have to do, you get done in. All I say to all of the politicians in Britain is that once you accept you're dealing with a bully and a coward, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them."

Confident that the public's sympathies lie with Ed Miliband, Labour has kept up its attack on the paper. A spokesman said last night:

The deputy editor of the Daily Mail tonight admitted that it was an "error of judgement" to publish a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave accompanied by a crude pun. The newspaper should now apologise. 

We continue to believe that the article headlined "the man who hated Britain" and a subsequent article which described Ralph Miliband's legacy as "evil" were smears. The deputy editor of the Daily Mail showed tonight he could not justify either of them. 

Several commentators have pointed out, as Dan Hodges did when I appeared with him on BBC News last night, that Miliband's frequent references to his father invite scrutiny of his views. But while true, this does not give the Mail a licence to print lies about him ("the man who hated Britain").

In today's Guardian, Miliband's biographer Michael Newman, whose book was used as the basis for the attack, writes: "he devoted himself to building his life here, and this was cemented by his marriage in 1961 to Marion Kozak (another Jewish survivor, who had been hidden in Poland during the war), and the birth of their two sons later in the decade. Subsequently, the only significant amounts of time he spent abroad were in teaching in North American universities, where he went almost every year from the late 1970s until shortly before his death in 1994, and where he usually felt quite homesick.

"He clearly had great affection for Britain, despite all his criticisms he voiced about its class structure, and he would devote the majority of his writing and teaching to the analysis of British politics, particularly in such classic works as Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982). And his own periodic political activity was also in a British context."

To suggest that Ed Miliband relishes this fight for political reasons, as some have done, is absurd. He is a son defending his father from a vile and hurtful attack. But the row has become a demonstration of the "leadership and character" he spoke of in his speech last week. While too often politicians have remained silent when they and their families have been smeared, Miliband has chosen to confront Dacre.

The Mail gave the game away in its editorial yesterday when it referred to Miliband's support for a new form of media regulation. But the irony is that it is smears like the Mail's that, more than anything, undermine the cause of a free press.

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
Show Hide image

Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia