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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue