Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband sharpens his attack on Ukip: more Thatcherite than Thatcher

The Labour leader's message is a smart way to turn working class voters off Farage. 

"I'm not that interested in Nigel Farage," Ed Miliband said recently when asked about the Ukip leader. But to paraphrase Trotsky on the dialectic, Farage is certainly interested in him - and in his voters. The Ukip leader has made it clear that he believes there are few Conservative voters left for his party to win over and that his focus is on attracting supporters from Labour. With Ukip taking the lead in the most recent European election polls, he appears to be having some success. 

In response, ahead of its campaign launch tomorrow, Labour is stepping up its Ukip attack. In an article in today's Daily Mirror, Miliband denounces the party's policies as "more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself." 

Now we have Ukip and Nigel Farage pretending that they are the real champions of Britain’s hardworking people.

This is from a politician who likes to boast that he is the only one 'keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive'.

And the truth is that Ukip's policies towards working people are more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself. 

His party promises higher taxes for working families and huge giveaways for the rich.

He wants bankers’ bonuses to be bigger, while risking 3.5 million jobs by pulling out of the EU and scrapping basic rights at work, like maternity or sick pay.

One of his MEPs has even claimed 'the very existence of the NHS stifles competition' and his party wants to impose charges for visiting a GP. 

I have a clear message for Ukip and Mr Farage: you cannot claim to be a party for working people when you would destroy jobs, our health service, and basic rights.

Rather than attacking the party over its stance on immigration and Europe (precisely the policies that attract working class Labour voters), Miliband has wisely chosen to fight on the territory of the economy and public services. This has the dual benefit of dissuading left-wing voters from supporting Ukip and of reminding right-wing Tories why they have jumped ship. Labour strategists regard the party's recent victory in the Wythenshawe by-election, where it won a comfortable majority of 8,960 (37.4 per cent) over Ukip, as a template for how to fight Farage. The party ran an effective get-out-the-vote operation and attacked Ukip over its support for tax cuts for the rich and GP charges. 

Most of Ukip's supporters, as I've noted before, favour a large state and higher public spending. Polling by YouGov shows that 78 per cent support the nationalisation of the energy companies and 73 per cent back the renationalisation of the railways. Rather than a "code of conduct" for employers, 57 per cent simply want zero-hour contracts to be banned. Rather than a flat tax, the same number support the reintroduction of the 50p rate. 

But there are signs that Farage is shifting leftwards on the economy in a sign to retain their support. He has recently called for tougher regulation of zero-hour contracts and for the abolition of the bedroom tax. Farage has also abandoned Ukip's previous policy of a flat tax of 31 per cent, arguing that higher earners should pay at least 40 per cent. 

Given Ukip's success in attracting working class supporters, it makes no sense for the party to alienate them by adopting a programme of turbo-Thatcherism. In this era of insecurity, there is a large market for a party that combines hostility towards the EU and immigration with a critical stance towards big business. As Farage and his allies know, it is this approach that has enabled the Front National to achieve such success in France.  The challenge for him will be to continue this reorientation without entirely alienating his party's libertarian wing.  

P.S. With both Miliband and Farage appearing on The Andrew Marr Show this Sunday, we can look forward to the first encounter between the pair on the usual sofa slot at the end. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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