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Burned by the Sun

Courting Murdoch was always bound to backfire on Labour but the paper's influence is built on a myth

If ever there was proof that New Labour's careful courting of Rupert Murdoch would ultimately work against the party's interests, it came on the night of Gordon Brown's conference speech in Brighton when news broke of the Sun's endorsement of the Conservatives. One could see the hand of the Conservative communications director and former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, in the timing of that announcement, which deflated and panicked so many of those delegates who had been bolstered by Brown's speech.

Earlier that evening, there had been anger at a joint Fabians-Compass-Progress fringe meeting, which was dominated by a debate on Brown's caution: specifically his announcement of the planned introduction of the "alternative vote" system via a manifesto promise and a referendum in the next parliamentary term. Shocked reformers condemned Brown's "betrayal" of their cause. He had missed the chance of a "game-changing" referendum on, or before, election day, while forcing another non-proportional system on Labour.

Brown's stubbornness

A rueful defence of Brown was made by the Communities Secretary, John Denham, who had called for an election-day vote on PR alongside his cabinet colleagues Alan Johnson and - at an NS fringe event - Tessa Jowell. But as figures as diverse as the leftist Compass chair, Neal Lawson, and the former Blairite MPs Oona King and Stephen Twigg expressed their disappointment at the announcement, it became clear that Brown's stubbornness had alienated many of his natural supporters. Potentially, Brown had set back the chances of a truly fair system for another generation. Such was his reluctance to entertain change that he took the decision only after expressing ambivalence on the subject in his NS interview last week and, according to a Downing Street source, it was not signed off until hours before the speech. If Labour is "best when it is boldest", this was not it.

Where has conservatism and timidity of this sort left the Prime Minister? Those of us who have long argued that he has nothing left to lose by being bold over the next six months before the general election will note that the government is no longer burdened by the need to please a media tycoon whose values are diametrically opposed to the Labour movement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Sun's backing never did win Labour elections, and the paper's celebrated "influence" is built on a myth. It is a neat irony that it is precisely this supposed influence that a proportional voting system would smash by handing power to the electorate as a whole, rather than a few Conservative-inclined seats in "Middle England".

But Brown has fallen between two stools. The fudge on electoral reform illustrates a wider problem: the Prime Minister's perennial preference for short-term tactical victories over long-term strategic success. The chance to put the Tories on the defensive has been sacrificed for Brown's personal political vanity: he shores up his position at all costs. And, as I have predicted all along, it is now beyond doubt that he intends to stay and fight next year's election. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, who is the most credible candidate to replace Brown before the election, confirmed to me after what he called "the best speech Gordon has given as leader" that the leadership issue is "resolved". His predecessor Margaret Beckett said, simply: "What leadership issue?

And yet, David Cameron will be relaxed as he makes his way to Manchester for the Tories' own party conference, because Labour has little media support left. As the former Labour spin-doctor-in-chief Alastair Campbell has argued, it is as if an election is unnecessary: the Conservative media pack has already decided who has won.

Interestingly, Campbell, who spent so many years courting and wooing Rupert Murdoch's newspaper empire, has dismissed the Sun's switch of allegiance, saying that "people will make their own minds up". He adds: "It was merely a matter of when. For Labour, it should actually help the feeling of fighting back that has finally been around this week."

A difficult task

Like Brown's, Cameron's speech will be well received by the party faithful. He has convinced his MPs and his supporters in the media that he is on the verge of reviving the Tories' historic winning streak in spite of a wide but soft lead in the polls that is far below that of Tony Blair's in the mid-1990s. The parliamentary Tory party - like the fanatical Tory blogosphere - is almost entirely united behind him.

What has changed, however, is that the Prime Minister has finally emerged from his denial over the threat posed by the opposition, which will at last face robust scrutiny from Labour, if not the media. Although Brown still cannot bring himself to mention Cameron by name, he has taken a concerted decision to challenge and expose his party's policies. Chief among these are the economic missteps: the inheritance tax "giveaway" to the country's richest estates, the desire to cut spending during recession and the apparent complacency over the financial and banking crises.

The Prime Minister believes he can still beat the Tories on his favoured economic turf at the general election. "Because the task is difficult, the triumph will be all the greater," he told the conference in an abstract reference to the election. After his failure to create momentum on the crucial issue of electoral reform, that may be wishful thinking. But for all the media scorn, and however flawed our skewed and majoritarian voting system remains, the public - unlike the Sun - has yet to have its say.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people