Coup that never was
The campaign against Ed Miliband is part of a long tradition, writes Eddie Ford
Ed Miliband is not having a happy time. The polls continue to show chronic underperformance, to put it mildly. ICM on November 10 claimed that support for Labour had fallen three points to 32%, giving the party a mere single-point lead over the Conservatives, whilst the United Kingdom Independence Party was on 14% and the Liberal Democrats were registering 11%. Perhaps even more distressingly for the Labour leader, the same poll had his personal ratings falling to a new low of minus 42% compared with Cameron’s minus 3% - only Nick Clegg has a worse showing, and a recent YouGov survey suggests that Miliband is now even less popular than his Lib Dem counterpart. Meanwhile, according to a Fabian Society study, there has been a 4% fall in support amongst those who voted Labour in 2010.
As for Lord Ashcroft, the king of pollsters, he has the Tories on 30%, Labour 29%, Ukip 16%, Lib Dems 10%1 and others on 8%.2 Labour, however, has only a fragile lead in a string of key marginal seats, which could be wiped out if Ukip voters (or potential voters) can be won over to the Conservatives - which is a touch-and-go prospect, as Ukip still seems to be gathering momentum, with the Rochester and Strood by-election only two weeks away (its candidate, Mark Reckless, has a 12-point lead over his Tory rival3).
In the same vein though, Ashcroft calculated that the Tories can afford to lose no more than 21 seats to Labour if they are to remain the largest party. Interestingly, he said voters were more likely (and swing voters twice as likely) to say they would rather have Cameron as prime minister even if it means the Tories remain in power rather than vice versa - but the reverse was true for Labour. People were twice as likely, and Labour voters three times as likely, to say they would rather have Labour in government even if it means Miliband becoming prime minister than they were to say the opposite - only 7% said they “would rather have Ed Miliband as PM than David Cameron, even if it means having Labour in government”. Must be nice to be loved.
Adding to Labour’s woes, a recent Guardian analysis indicates that the party in Scotland could lose 20 or more of its Westminster seats to the Scottish National Party - posing a direct threat to Miliband’s chances of securing a workable majority in May.4
But, whatever the exact swings or fluctuations might be, as things stand now it is looking unlikely that Labour will be able to form a majority government on its own - though, of course, you could say exactly the same about the Tories. Almost anything can happen.
We should hardly be surprised that Miliband is doing so exceptionally poorly in the polls at the moment. Over the week or so we have had a press feeding frenzy about plots and conspiracies against him. From reading these stories you would have got the impression that Miliband was only days away from losing his job. The Observer breathlessly told us that 20 shadow cabinet ministers from “all areas” of the party (“bar the hard left”) were “on the brink” of calling for him to stand down, maybe in favour of former home secretary Alan Johnson, or even the oleaginous shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna (November 9). Slipping into a fantasy world, The Observer informs its readers that the supposed plotters did not want a destructive leadership contest - fancy that - but would just like to see Johnson, or whoever, take over from Miliband in a bloodless putsch.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the press campaign against Miliband was not instigated by the Daily Mail or some other foul rightwing rag, but rather the New Statesman - a publication founded in 1913 with the active support of the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw, and which backed Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010. Yet, for all that, the magazine’s editor, Jason Crowley, penned a withering assessment of the Labour leader (November 5).5 Sounding more like a Daily Telegraph bore than a progressively-minded journalist, he described Miliband as “very much an old-style Hampstead socialist”, who “doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration” - or “Essex Man or Woman” either. The reason being that he is the “product of this narrow background”. Indeed, Miliband apparently has a “deterministic” and “quasi-Marxist” analysis of the present situation, which views the Ukip insurgency, Scottish nationalism, the hollowing out of political parties, Islamist radicalisation, etc as “manifestations of a failed economic model” - by contrast, Crowley ‘quotes’ Lenin to the effect that there are no “absolutely hopeless situations” for capitalism. What a silly dogmatist Miliband is. Instead, Crowley argued, Labour does best when it has a leader who “seems most in tune with the times” - Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966 and, of course, Blair in 1997. In fact, he concluded, it would better for everyone if Miliband just learned to accept that Europe’s “social democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past” - bring back Blair?
Naturally, the Daily Mail, well known for its near pathological hatred of the Labour Party and trade unions - well, virtually the entire human race - instantly picked up on Crowley’s article and ran with it: in fact it ran and ran and ran with it. Leading the rightwing pack, the paper proclaimed in a headline that now the “bible of the left turns against Red Ed” because he is a “quasi-Marxist” - and excitedly told us that there were “rumours swirling” at Westminster that a letter calling on Miliband to go was being prepared by some Labour MPs (November 6).6 From there, the attack intensified. A few days later the Mail carried a two-page article claiming Labour was “committing suicide”, presumably by having Miliband as leader, and an editorial innocently pooh-poohed the idea that he was becoming the victim of a concerted character assassination attempt by the rightwing press. After all, it said, look at The Observer’s report about the 20 shadow ministers calling for Miliband’s head - and they are lefties (November 9).
Another article in the same edition of the paper helpfully informs us that “now 42% of the party’s voters say Miliband is not fit to be PM ... and his rivals are far more popular” - before deluging us with largely meaningless statistics. For instance, “if” Ed Miliband’s ‘exiled’ brother became Labour leader, a YouGov poll “suggested” the party would enjoy a “six-point lead” over the Tories” - get on that plane now, David. Alternatively, it seems, if Miliband were replaced by Johnson or the “suave” Umunna, Labour’s “four-point lead” over the Tories would “double” - and that “extra support” could “gain” Labour 50 more seats. Everything clear now?
Furthermore, the Mail believed that Miliband has “just weeks to save his job” and a “poor showing” in the Rochester by-election “could tip him over the edge” - a rather odd analysis, as surely such a scenario would apply far more to Cameron. When Ukip wins on November 20, Cameron’s fear must be that a clutch of Tory MPs will jump ship to the ascendant Ukip - throwing his leadership into doubt, not Miliband’s. At the very least, we will hear renewed calls for a Tory-Ukip ‘pact’ - something Cameron clearly does not want to contemplate.
Obviously, the rest of the newspapers piled in to do Miliband over. The Sun on Sunday went on about the “Labour push to axe Miliband”; The Times thought that Miliband has “lost public confidence”; The Daily Telegraph spin was: “Labour admits Miliband crisis may cost it election”; and the Daily Express entertained its readers with “Labour’s turmoil, as ‘posse’ plots a coup to replace Miliband”. From the other end of the spectrum, the normally Labour-loyal Sunday Mirror predicted that Miliband has “got six weeks to shape up” (we shall see) and The Independent on Sunday (November 9) treated us to a different angle: “Jewish donors drop ‘toxic’ Miliband” - some people are apparently upset by Miliband’s “anti-Israeli” stance over Gaza and Palestine (with actress Maureen Lipman ending her five decades of support for the Labour Party because of its “new” foreign policy).7
However, some rightwingers want to play the ‘long game’ - ie, keep Miliband as leader so they can continuously mock him and in that way undermine the Labour Party as a whole. That unpleasant flophead, Boris Johnson, espoused exactly that strategy in the pages of the Telegraph - suggesting the Tories should “save the Panda” (Jack Straw’s nickname for Miliband) on the grounds that it “would be in our interests to protect the poor beleaguered lefty”, thus removing the possibility that he is “replaced by someone more threatening” (November 9). The Sun, on the other hand, strongly disagreed - there is still the danger, an editorial warned, that Labour could win the election: “As the saying goes, when you strike at the king, you must kill him” (November 11).
Here we come to the heart of the matter. The rightwing press is terrified that ‘Red’ Ed will somehow win the next general election - which is a bit strange if you think, like some on the left do, that the Labour Party is a bourgeois party just like the Tories and the Lib Dems. But, of course, it is not - though currently the left within it is in a truly wretched state. The Mail and all the rest of them demonstrate that the rightwing media will go to almost any lengths to discredit and demonise any Labour leader who is perceived to be deviating even in the slightest degree from the neoliberal and ‘common sense’ consensus.
Meaning, needless to say, that the recent attacks on Miliband are part of a long tradition - a standard feature of British political history. Michael Foot was ceaselessly derided for his supposedly loony left views and for ‘inappropriately’ wearing a donkey jacket to the Cenotaph. Neil Kinnock was mercilessly mocked and abused as the “Welsh windbag”, culminating in the legendary Sun front page in which his head was superimposed on a light bulb: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. Lest we forget, Gordon Brown was lampooned as a ditherer who could not even sign his own name. The only Labour leader not to be vilified in this manner was Tony Blair - telling you all you need to know about Blair: the press recognised him as someone they could do a lot of business with.
You can guarantee that, as the general election draws nearer, Miliband will have many ‘light bulbs’ attached to him by the press - and far worse besides, especially if the polls look close.
In the end, there was no palace coup or letter demanding - or pleading - that Miliband must go. You might almost think that the press had made it up. Writing in The Guardian on November 10, Alan Johnson dashed the hopes of those silly enough to think that a last-minute leadership change was either possible or desirable. Reminding everyone that he has “never sought” the Labour leadership and, “regardless of the circumstances, never will” - Miliband, he said, is “entitled to expect our loyalty”. In fact Johnson praised his “courage” in standing up to “vested interests” and declining to follow Cameron down the “populist path” of “economic uncertainty” and an “arbitrary” in-or-out EU referendum.
In a move further intended to close down speculation about Miliband’s future, 100 prospective Labour parliamentary candidates signed a letter calling on the “anonymous” rebels to stop “briefing” newspapers and instead rally round the leader - “now is the time to stand our ground and to work even harder for the Labour victory that our communities so desperately need”.
No-one should be the slightest bit surprised that absolutely nothing happened - we have been here before. In January 2010 Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt circulated a letter calling for Gordon Brown to go. Then, as now, no saviour came forward. The shamefaced plotters retreated back to the shadows.
Our hatred of the venal and hypocritical press, however, should not blind us to the fact that there is a grain of truth in what they say about Miliband - he is a bad media performer. What about his weird, Dalek-like response to the storm enveloping him: “I don’t accept that this matter arises” - who else would come out with such a constipated formulation?
1. Which apparently caused champagne corks to pop at Lib Dem HQ.
4. The Guardian November 3.
6. Daily Mail November 6.
7. The Independent on Sunday November 9.