Avoiding bacon sandwiches
Don’t incur the wrath - or mockery - of the press, warns Eddie Ford
As we go to press, the Weekly Worker has no more idea than anybody else as to how the general election votes will exactly fall nor how the seats will be distributed, let alone what deals (or not) might be struck. There might even be another general election relatively soon. But, feverish speculation aside, one thing can be said with absolute certainty - the rightwing print media has done everything in its considerable power to set the agenda and in turn determine the outcome of the election. Just look at the way it has treated Ed Miliband.
Our readers will need no reminding how journalists have been frothing about “Red Ed” for years, the man who supposedly stabbed his brother in the back and scandalously had a string of girlfriends before he got married. A shifty political Poldark. A man who cannot even eat a bacon sandwich properly or, as the catchy headline in The Independent put it: “Ed Miliband fails to look normal while eating bacon sandwich ahead of campaign tour” - before going on to comment that the “assembled photographers quickly took an interest after it became apparent that the mound of oozing ketchup and grease could not be tackled elegantly”.1 Definitely not the sort of man to be trusted with the reins of state.
In tandem with these highly personalised attacks on Miliband, there have been vicious headlines that almost give red-baiting a bad name: keep scraping the barrel. Hence the Daily Mail front page telling us that Miliband will “bring back uncontrolled migration” and explaining that Alex Salmond needs to “move over”, as “I own Labour, says union baron Red Len” (April 23). Then a few weeks later in the same paper we had Richard Littlejohn writing: “Trust Labour? I’d rather trust Jimmy Savile to babysit” (May 5). Or The Sun leading with “Monster raving Labour Party”, as ‘Mockney’ Miliband “cosies up” with “loony leftie” Russell Brand - the latter now urging a Labour vote except in Scotland and Brighton, where Caroline Lucas was the Green MP.
There was even a whiff of desperation hanging over two recent front-page stories from The Times. Both contained open or “exclusive” letters from thousands of bosses of various small and large companies apparently endorsing the Tories - “we would like see David Cameron and George Osborne given the chance to finish what they have started”. But it later transpired that quite a few of these signatories had not consented to having their name attached to the letter, nor even seen it.
However, frustratingly for the Tories and their press, the relentless character assassination of Ed Miliband has not reaped the expected dividends. Far from collapsing under the pressure, the more exposure the Labour leader received, the more his popularity ratings went up. The carefully constructed myth of the useless dweeb crumbles, as feared by the former Conservative Party chairman, Chris Patten - who in January strongly advised Cameron not to get involved in a direct, two-way debate with Miliband, as he is “highly intelligent” and a “good debater”.2
Having said that, the media as whole calls the tune and frames the narrative. We can see that clearly with Miliband’s changing stance towards the Scottish National Party. At the beginning of the election campaign, his position was equivocal - at the very least, you can say that it had enough ‘wriggle room’ for some sort of deal.
But after relentless pressure about a “dangerous alliance” between Labour and the SNP that posed a mortal threat to the union, Miliband began to rule out any arrangement with Nicola Sturgeon - eventually declaring on the BBC’s Question time on April 30 that he would rather not have a Labour government at all “if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP”. He was “not going to sacrifice the future of our country” or the “unity of our country” by acceding to SNP demands over Trident or spending cuts.3
Not surprisingly, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham appeared to be slightly troubled by his leader’s overly forthright position - saying that “of course” there will be “dialogue” with Nicola Sturgeon - whips talk to each other all the time about government business: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. That is just how Westminster works - everyone knows that Labour and Tory whips regularly consult each other over this or that matter. But Miliband’s Jesuitical definition of what constitutes a ‘deal’ shows he felt compelled to assuage the media despite the fact that the polls pointed to Labour’s need for SNP backing in some way or another. Now he might have set himself up for a fall, which most Labour supporters would find hard to forgive if a beaming David Cameron remains prime minister. Of course, for the vast mass of people at the moment the general election is about choosing a government. Only for the genuinely revolutionary left is it about building a viable opposition.
Nevertheless, the Tory press has gone on about the SNP being “hard-left”, “unreconstructed” socialists, dinosaur throwbacks to the 1970s, and so on - a theme reflected in John Major’s truly awful April 21 speech about the “frightening prospect” of a deal between Labour and the SNP, describing the latter as “deeply socialist”. The very idea is deeply risible, of course. If the SNP is terrifyingly far-left, how come it has the backing of The Scottish Sun - which on its front page portrayed Sturgeon as Princess Leia from Star wars, the “new hope”, and a caption that read: “May the 7th be with you: why it’s time to vote SNP”.4 Meanwhile, on the same day, the ‘English’ Sun pictured David Cameron as a newly born babe in arms - “It’s a Tory!” - urging readers to vote Conservative to “keep [the] UK economy on track”, “stop the SNP running the country” and guarantee an in-out referendum on EU membership.
No, the Financial Times was a lot more accurate than Major when it described the SNP as more “centrist” than radical or socialist, when you actually look at its record in office (May 1). Indeed, it has governed more like “one-nation Tories”, with “pragmatic instincts unhindered by ideological baggage” - at least in the opinion of Alex Bell, the former head of policy for Alex Salmond. Therefore estimates from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest that the budget for devolved public services has been cut by around four percentage points less in Scotland than in England in the past five years, thanks to the Barnett formula. Yet spending on health in England is forecast to have increased 6% in real terms over the same period, compared with just 1% in Scotland - and so on. Spending cuts, or austerity, by any other name.
But the SNP has been sitting pretty, taking the credit for any nice things in Scotland, such as abolishing student tuition fees, but blaming Westminster for cuts - in that way absolving itself of the responsibility. Which is precisely why some SNPers, at least in private, would much prefer a Tory government - it would then be able to carry on playing that game.
More widely, the rightwing press would have us believe that the Labour Party is “hard left” too - with TheSunday Telegraph trying to frighten us by saying it had the “most leftwing” manifesto since the 1980s (May 3). The fact that this is not that far off the mark illustrates how dramatically politics have moved to the right over the last few decades. After all, just take a trip down memory lane to the mid-1970s with former chancellor Denis Healey - unarguably a rightwinger in Labour terms. He wanted to squeeze the rich “until the pips squeak”, a comment that earned the rebuke of Eric Heffer, a leftwinger, for putting into jeopardy Labour’s chances of winning the next election. Never mind about a top tax rate of 50%, as talked about by Ed Balls. That’s for wimps. In his very first budget, introduced in April 1974, Healey introduced an 83% rate on incomes over £20,000 (equivalent of £182,000 in today’s figures), which, when combined with a 15% surcharge on “unearned” income (ie, investments and dividends), could add up to a 98% marginal rate of personal income tax - not to mention slapping on capital controls. No wonder obscenely remunerated rock stars and film actors fled to Switzerland, Monoco and the Channel Islands. If the likes of the Telegraph think that Miliband’s manifesto really is “leftwing” then they clearly do not know what the word means.
There has been a lot of moaning from some sections of the media about how ‘boring’ this election has been. Leave aside the numerous possible outcomes. A constitutional crisis? Failure to form a stable government? Or another referendum on Scottish independence? Perhaps even a declaration of UDI north of the border? This whining from the media is a load of disingenuous, hypocritical, tosh.
Insofar as the election coverage has been boring or inane, that is due to the control-freakery exhibited bythe respective campaign managers, spin doctors and policy wonks - fighting out their campaign almost entirely through the media, not though terribly old-fashioned things like public meetings or hustings. As a consequence, all that matters is minimising risk to the utmost degree and not upsetting the media or - even worse - becoming objects of scorn or mockery. Keep clear of the bacon sandwiches. In fact, just avoid food altogether and say nothing off-message - be as anodyne as possible.
Because if you do not, as we know, you will be torn to pieces by the media (even though they might go ahead and do it anyway). Remember Gordon Brown and his notorious four-minute 2010 encounter with the “bigoted” Gillian Duffy (which she obviously was). They crucified him, suggesting at the time that his remark might have been the “shortest suicide note in history”. And Brown had no comeback, especially as he had been banging on previously about “British jobs for British workers” - which did not essentially differ from Duffy’s remarks about eastern Europeans “flocking” in.
Just about summing up this dismal state of affairs, the fashion correspondent of the FT complained at the weekend about the lack of colour in elections these days - where are the bow-ties, waistcoats, hats and tweed suits? All casual dress, no style - so dreadfully monochrome. But you can bet your bottom dollar that if Ed Miliband turned up on Question time in a flamboyant shirt he would be ripped to shreds within seconds by the press - gods that must always be appeased. You have to be Mr or Mrs Bland to get on in mainstream British politics.
1. The Independent May 21 2015.