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.

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.

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

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at www.hopisen.com.

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland