Ed Miliband delivers a speech at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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On rail policy and more, Labour is leaving space to its left

Miliband has asked radical questions but the answers have been too cautious for some.

Labour's stance on rail, the subject of speculation for months, has now been resolved. As today's Guardian reports, it will allow a public sector comparator to bid for franchises as they expire (seven are up for renewal in the next parliament), but will not pledge to automatically return them to state control. This is in line with the approach outlined by Ed Balls on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend, when he said the public sector should be free to compete with private companies "on a level playing field" but ruled out an "ideological" commitment to state ownership in all cases.

Earlier this year, Andrew Adonis, the shadow infrastructure minister and former transport secretary, similarly told me: "I don’t use the language of renationalisation but of fair competition. My view is that the performance of East Coast [which was renationalised in 2009 after National Express defaulted on its contract] as a state company is sufficiently strong that it would stand a good chance of being able to win future franchises on a fair basis. And, of course, because it doesn’t have to pay dividends, it has a substantial financial advantage."

The party's stance will disappoint those unions and parliamentary candidates who have been pushing for it to commit to bringing expired franchises back into the public sector in a process of incremental renationalisation. They will point to opinion polls showing majority public support for a return to full state ownership and to the success of East Coast as evidence in favour of their position. But Labour, which Ed Miliband has always emphasised will take a "pragmatic" approch, has decided to act on a case-by-case basis (thus limiting the financial risk to the state).

The position is an example of what the Labour leader describes as balancing "radicalism" with "credibility" (a theme explored in my column this week). On this issue, as on others, he has adopted a stance to the left of the Tories, but to the right of the unions and some activists. He has, for instance, pledged to widen use of the living wage, but has ruled out making its payment compulsory, he has promised to end "exploitative" zero-hours contracts, while opposing a full ban, and has committed to reintroducing the 50p tax rate, while vowing not to go any higher.

As Labour resolves its final policy positions, space is more clearly emerging to its left. The Greens, for instance, have used today's rail story to remind voters that they are committed to full renationalisation. They also favour a statutory living wage and a ban on all zero-hour contracts. To the disappointment of the Tories, who have long hoped for the emergence of a "Ukip of the left", the Greens and others have largely proved ineffective at exploiting the territory to Miliband's left. But as the election approaches, it is worth asking how those voters who welcomed the radical questions he asked, but have been disappointed with the answers, will behave.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder