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The right is trying to do to Miliband what conservatives did to John Kerry

The attacks on Miliband are designed to create the impression in voters' minds that he is not like them: a Marxist elitist, a child of privilege, an out-of-touch metropolitan leftist.

John Kerry appears at a campaign rally outside the State House in Des Moines, Iowa during the 2004 US presidential election. Photograph: Getty Images.

For my first Progress column, I intended to write about David Cameron’s speech to Tory conference. Like a latter-day likely lad, I couldn’t watch the speech live, so avoided all the news until my work was done and it was time to fire up i-Player, ready to drip venom onto my laptop (regular drops of venom help to keep computers virus-free).

Yet the prime minister’s speech was so like yesterday’s fish lying on the monger's slab, glistening gently under the light but entirely soft and lifeless, that I discovered I had little to say about it. The only remarkable element was how our prime minister would direct his gaze to the camera, staring intently at the viewer, to say something horrible about the Labour Party.

The result of all this eye contact was that I felt I was on a date with an extremely grumpy accountant from Berkshire. Worse, there weren’t even any breadsticks to distract me from his tetchy monologue.

To be fair, there was an argument hiding in there about Britain’s road back to prosperity and the need to create a recovery for everyone. Unfortunately, the prime minister did not have a single policy to demonstrate how this would happen, so just told us how badly Labour sucked before, how we continue to suck now, and how dangerous our sucking would be in future. This rather undercut his inspiring vision of a optimistic, inclusive nation.

All of which means that rather than talk about Cameron, I have to talk about the Daily Mail and Ralph Miliband.

All the outrage that could be expressed has been expressed. Rightly so. However, the Mail’s attitude was so appalling, so outrageous to natural human sympathy, that it’s worth asking why they are pursuing a vendetta so far, when it is so apparently unhelpful to their cause?

My first theory was that the Mail was imitating Lyndon Johnson’s first election campaign. The apocryphal story goes that LBJ was trailing in the polls to a successful pig farmer. So Johnson told his aide to plant a story that the farmer enjoyed carnal relations with his livestock. Shocked, the aide replied that this was not true, and no one would believe it. "I don’t care if it’s true", came the response, "I just want everyone to hear him deny it".

This was too crude. After all, Miliband not only denied the Mail’s story, he was able to appeal to something better – a need for decency and civility in politics. The denying of the story helped Ed, made him passionate and personal, and today helped him score another victory over the worst excesses of tabloid culture. So what gives?

Then it struck me. I was thinking of the wrong Texan political campaigner. I should have thought of Karl Rove, not LBJ. Karl Rove developed one unique political manoeuvre. Faced with an opponent with an overwhelming strength, he relentlessly worked to undermine that strength.

Taken to the extreme, this is ugly, dirty, work. You have to be prepared to argue that a war hero is a coward, a tolerant person is a front for extremists, even to allow whispers that a campaigner for children has an unhealthy interest in young people.

So, what is Ed Miliband’s greatest strength? Michael Ashcroft set it out in his presentation to Tory conference.

Miliband’s strength is that he is 'in touch with people like me'; that he 'understands ordinary people'. The perception that he both understands, and is in touch with, the British people sustains his leadership. Seen in this light, the attack on Miliband becomes an attempt to destroy that strength, to leave in the mind of voters an impression that he is not like them, but is different, other. The son of a Marxist elitist, a child of privilege, an out-of-touch metropolitan leftist, and a hypocrite.

This attack is unfair, of course, and has many unpleasant undertones, but don’t think because it is repulsive it is incapable of working. Ask John Kerry. Further, there’s a risk that, in responding, you exacerbate the impression of your own difference or undermine your own strength. Your own righteous anger at the distortion can undermine your core strength. Straight-talking John McCain is reduced to running attack ads, and loses his advantage of 'not being a typical politician'. John Kerry defends his military record, or his wealth, and gives credence to the idea there is something awry.

If I’m right, this story is just the beginning. The attack on Ed Miliband from the right will be like that on John Kerry. His personal integrity, finances, family, connections, will all be used to paint a picture of a man who is not 'like Britain', with all the insinuation that involves.

Don’t expect this to come from the Tories themselves. If they’re smart, their role will be simply to say something like 'It’s outrageous to suggest Ed Miliband's father was a Marxist who hated Britain and it doesn’t matter that Ed Miliband is a privileged son of an extremist academic who is worth several million pounds. We Conservatives will fight on the issues, not on such trivia'.

Labour must be prepared for this attack. That means defending Ed passionately, but as importantly, it means understanding the calculation behind the low blows. The right cannot win on being 'in touch' on the issues, so they want to bring Labour down to the personal.

In the end, we win by proving how in touch we are, not through an argument over whether we are or are not like Britain. In that sense, the energy freeze and the cost-of-living crisis remain the messages we must push.

That doesn’t mean ignoring the unpleasant, but knowing that, to get back to our agenda, we must know the dark cynicism of the attacks on Ed Miliband for what they truly represent: a deep fear of our message.

In the end, the failure of Cameron’s speech and the Mail’s attacks on Ed are just two sides of the same coin. They want to get personal precisely because they can’t speak to Britain themselves. We can, and that is the strength we must never, ever stop focusing on.

Hopi Sen is a Labour blogger who writes here and writes a fortnightly column for ProgressOnline, where this piece first appeared.