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15 February 2011

Why Ed Miliband’s Sun article is a significant moment

Unlike some in his party, the leader believes Labour must engage with the tabloid.

By George Eaton

When Tony Woodley tore up a copy of the Sun at the 2009 Labour party conference and Harriet Harman mocked the paper’s “news in briefs”, it seemed as if the relationship between Labour and the tabloid was at an end. But Ed Miliband’s decision to write an op-ed piece for the paper attacking David Cameron’s stance on crime suggests he takes a different view.

In his first conference speech as leader, Miliband memorably declared: “[W]hen Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high reoffending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.” He hasn’t broken that promise, but he has adopted a notably tougher tone.

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Here’s the key passage:

Before the election Mr Cameron made promise after promise to get elected. He promised to protect front-line services but now we find he is cutting 10,000 police officers. He promised a prison sentence for anyone caught in possession of a knife and then broke his word. He promised there would be “honesty in sentencing”.

But he broke that promise, too. Bluff on crime, bluff on the causes of crime – the worst kind of politics.

Miliband may have argued that “the era of New Labour has passed” yet he isn’t afraid to borrow tricks from the Tony Blair playbook. The Labour leader’s decision to adopt a policy of constructive engagement towards the tabloid that dubbed him “Red Ed” does much to explain his stance on another issue – phone-hacking.

As the NS blogger Dan Hodges recently revealed, an email sent on behalf of Miliband’s director of strategy, Tom Baldwin (a former Times man) warned Labour’s front bench not to link the hacking scandal with the BSkyB bid and to “guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite”. We now have a better idea why.

Few political strategists would argue against engaging with a paper whose circulation remains above three million, but Miliband has also sensed a political opportunity. The Sun is no fan of coalition politics and the compromises it involves, and it recently launched a campaign against Ken Clarke’s prisons policy (an editorial last week called for the Justice Secretary’s head).

Miliband’s intervention, like his decision to come out against votes for prisoners, proves that he isn’t afraid to use populism to Labour’s advantage. As the coalition’s troubles deepen, expect to see a lot more of this.