Ed Miliband gambled on the tolerance of the British public and it paid off. If he shows the same courage in politics, he could win the election.
By Ian Dunt
He was commendably indifferent.
Since becoming leader, Ed Miliband has faced persistent questions about his marital status. He has children with his partner, the shy and charming Justine Thornton, and the two lived together, unmarried, in north London. They were a perfectly normal British couple.
The press, most of whose journalists live in a different, imaginary Britain, completely blew its top. The mid-market tabloids squeezed out some laughably puritanical editorials. So-called right wing ‘libertarian’ bloggers demanded he make a decent woman out of her. One BBC interviewer chose to use a full five minutes of his interview with the leader of the opposition by constantly asking about his missus.
Miliband, for his part, took a gamble. He gambled that the British public didn’t care, that this was old hat, that the country had moved on. And he was right. A YouGov poll last year showed 82% were completely indifferent about his marriage status. Eight per cent said it made them less likely to vote for him – voters which, let’s go ahead and safely assume, aren’t likely to be Labour voters. Four per cent said it encouraged them to vote for him.
Miliband ignored the media and banked on the essential tolerance of the British public. There’s a curious irony to the fact that he eventually announced his engagement on the day before Lance Price’s memoir comes out, highlighting Gordon Brown’s obsession with the media.
The book suggests that Brown’s decision to scrap the 10p rate of income tax was a direct attempt to gain Rupert Murdoch’s approval. The move, which took money from the very poor to help cut the basic rate from 22p to 20p in the pound, is probably the second defining moment of Brown’s leadership. The other was his dithering over the election, which bought him a reputation for indecision he could never shake off.
But the 10p rate row was even worse. It convinced the public Brown had no convictions. Before then, the ‘not Flash just Gordon’ tag was his greatest asset, marking him out as different to Tony Blair. After the 10p debacle, he was just like Blair but less effective.
“He was obsessed with News International, completely obsessed,” Patrick Loughran, Lord Mandelson’s special adviser, said of the prime minister. “We would go into meetings on election strategy or the Pre-Budget Report or some big announcement we were doing and within a minute Gordon would turn it into News International and Rebekah Brooks [its chief executive]. He was absolutely obsessed that it was a News International conspiracy and they were in bed with the Tories.”
This fear of the right-wing press, and its associated social conservatism, has driven many Labour leaders to endlessly tack right to avoid their wrath. But it also encouraged them to adopt two tones – one for their conference speech and the occasional Guardian interview and another for the mass-market, right wing press, which they often confused for the public itself.
British politics still takes many of its lessons from Tony Blair, not least of all in the case of David Cameron, whose frantic reforms in every government department stem from Blair’s regrets about not doing enough in his first term. But the centre-left often takes a more dangerous lesson: that its only path to electoral success is to court and then prostrate itself before the right wing media.
It’s dangerous because it’s false. Blair may have courted the right wing press, but he didn’t prostrate himself in front of anyone. He was a moderate Conservative. He didn’t pretend to have these views on public services or Iraq. As he himself said: “It’s worse than you think. I really do believe in it’.”
No Labour leader can afford to completely ignore the press, but to pander to it spells disaster.
Economically, the press is as out of step with the British public as it is on people’s marriage arrangements. Since the financial crisis, the political centre of gravity in this country has moved to the left. There is more suspicion of the private sector in the public than there is in parliament or in the media, as the rows over NHS reform and the forest sell-off has shown.
There is considerably more scepticism of the speed and depth of public spending cuts than there is in parliament or in the media. A YouGov poll from the weekend YouGov showed 52% supporting the TUC in “opposing public sector spending cuts” – with 31% disagreeing. While sections of the media desperately tried to prevent Miliband moving left by threatening him with the ‘Red Ed’ brand, the polls show that their concerns are not those of their readers – or even the majority of the public, who don’t read the papers at all but do use public services.
Running a principled, left-of-centre agenda happens to be the most effective choice Miliband can make at this juncture. The public are ready for a centre-left message. It values consistency and coherence over short-term media appeals. Even where it doesn’t agree with every point a politician makes, it can spot the difference between political expediency and honourable convictions.
Miliband has shown that he has the guts to ignore the media and speak over its head to the public on marriage. He was right to do so and he got the public mood spot on. If shows that bravery in his political life he could convince the public that he’s more than just some bloke who shafted his brother.
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