Miliband's Leveson strategy looks crazy. It might just work

The Labour leader has made enemies of the British press. Now he has to present himself as the outsider taking on tabloid bullies.

The path that Ed Miliband has chosen in response to Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals – demanding that they be implemented in law – is not, to put it mildly, risk free. As I noted yesterday, Miliband’s position became much tougher as soon as it became clear that Leveson was not going to land David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt with any substantial charges of malfeasance in their relations with News International.

The report notes the intimacy of politicians with the Murdoch empire, accepts that there was influence and concedes that the public might reasonably come away from the episode with a perception of impropriety. But there is no tangible evidence of an explicit deal in which commercial interests where procured with favourable political coverage. (The anti-Murdoch stalwarts will insist that, like any Mafioso relationship, explicit deals didn’t need to be spelled out because everyone understood the rules of the game – but for corruption allegations to stick in a way that would have seriously damaged the Prime Minister you need something more than a few cosy canters over the Cotswolds.)

So when Cameron stood up in the Commons yesterday he had a little knoll of moral high ground to climb on to. He can’t get too sanctimonious about Leveson’s verdict on his relations with News Corp because Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are still facing serious criminal charges. There is ample potential embarrassment for Number 10 there. In the event of convictions – and they must of course be presumed innocent – Cameron’s judgement would be shredded.

Still, Leveson deposited a bit of political capital in the Bank of Cameron and the PM clearly decided to spend it all at once – rejecting the Lord Justice’s central premise that any new regulatory arrangements need to be underpinned by law. That puts Cameron on the side of the newspapers (a pretty good place to be in politics) but on the wrong side of hacking victims who, reasonably enough, wonder what the point in asking Leveson to come up with a plan was if the plan wasn’t going to be implemented (not such a good place to be).

As a liberal-minded Tory, Cameron’s resistance to “crossing the Rubicon” of statutory involvement in press regulation is doubtless sincere. That taking such a position was sure to make him the toast of newspaper editorial meetings was also no doubt a significant factor in his considerations. If Cameron can hold his current line – and a parliamentary vote would be close given that the Lib Dems look ready to side with Labour – the next election will be fought with the Tories as the party that saved the press from an Ofcom-style regulator.

It doesn’t take a great leap to imagine how tricky that campaign could get for Miliband, and how hard newspaper endorsements will be to secure, if he has a manifesto promising to do to editors the horrible things that Cameron wouldn’t.

In a crude cost-benefit analysis, I’d imagine the anguished cries of hacking victims are worth withstanding for the PM if it procures him a favourable press wind, especially since wider public interest in the whole Leveson issue is low. By 2015 it will be very old news.

So has Miliband blundered or been wrong-footed? Not quite. I don’t think he had much choice but to back Leveson’s plan. To the non-journalist’s eye it is pretty reasonable. There are important arguments as to why any statute that covers newspaper behaviour is morally odious, intrinsically undemocratic, unworkable or all three. As a journalist, I instinctively gravitate towards that view, which has been made well enough elsewhere for me not to have to repeat it here.

It is also worth nothing that Leveson was at great pains to pre-empt those arguments, that other perfectly functional democracies have laws that cover media practice and that, quite obviously, there is no danger of what Miliband is advocating turning into a regime of regulation under which militias of jackbooted Ofcom thugs confiscate presses and lock up columnists. Journalists love to feel like dissidents, especially very well-paid journalists who are really part of the Establishment but want to retain the frisson of being subversive. And no industry ever gladly embraced more regulation.

In other words, Miliband is not setting himself against press freedom, he is setting himself against British newspapers. And while they are powerful, they are not as powerful as they used to be. They might give him a rough ride, but most of them were almost certainly going to do that in the run up to the next election anyway.

British newspaper journalists are also not the most popular bunch of people in the land, rubbing shoulders with politicians down at the bottom of the league of public confidence. Miliband’s whole project is based on the hope that he might position himself as an outsider, a ripper-up-of-rules, a breaker of cosy consensuses etc. It is all pretty fanciful given his Westminster pedigree but it is the best plan he’s got so he has to at least be consistent with it. That means, in this case, being on the side of the victims of appalling intrusion and malpractice. It means framing the forthcoming battle as one in which the leader of the opposition is taking on the tabloid bullies and the Prime Minister is sticking to the old rules, defending his friends and looking out for the powerful few. It’s a long shot. It could work. Rubicon crossed. Alea iacta est.

One final thought. British newspapers have worked themselves up into a right lather over Leveson and his purported threat to press freedom – and not without reason. It is hard to avoid the feeling that some of that froth is displaced anxiety about the obsolescence of the whole newspaper business model. Leveson barely touched on the internet, blogs, Twitter etc. Yet no-one currently working in print media can be confident that ink-on-paper will still be part of their lives in 10 years, let alone 20 or 30. So to a considerable extent the whole Leveson debate feels like a row about how to tidy up the mess in a museum that fewer and fewer people want to visit.

Print journalism is pathologically insecure at the moment; no wonder it doesn’t like the prospect of being restrained further. Ultimately, the questions of whether there are limits to free speech, where they are, and what responsibilities fall on those who publish are all going to have to be decided with reference to what goes on online. Leveson is destined to be remembered as an important chapter in the politics of this parliament, an epitaph for a particularly raucous phase in the life of British newspapers and a mere footnote in the story of 21st Century media.

Ed Miliband with actor Hugh Grant, who has been campaigning for stricter press regulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.