Ed Miliband is on the Defensive Already – is this Really a Good Idea?

So, by a narrow margin, it’s Ed not David.

And that “narrow margin” seems to have been the focus of today’s news and Ed Miliband’s comments to the press. It was the affiliate vote – and by extension union vote – that determined the outcome of the Labour leadership contest under the slightly unusual version of AV. According to the headlines, he is going to protect the “squeezed middle classes” and is no way a puppet of the unions.

This strikes me as a bit defensive for a politician’s first media appearances as Leader of the Opposition. The approach may be deliberately pre-emptive, since the trade union’s influence on the outcome of the leadership election is bound to be attacked. Ed Miliband had already been painted as “Red Ed” – a left-wing candidate who wants to take the party away from New Labour. Portraying him as a defender of the middle class might combat this view, but asserting that he is “his own man” seems a little direct. Why not use more optimism?

Nick Robinson suggests that this might just cement the idea in people’s minds. It certainly seems like a dangerous approach to take that will, if it works, wipe the slate clean. But will it work, and even if it does is it the best approach?

In the Red-Top Corner…

It’s no longer about Coulson. Chris Bryant on Sky News described the ongoing saga about Andy Coulson’s role in Downing St and his alleged part in any “phone hacking”* as a “sideshow”. Instead, the story is now all newspapers and whether they’ve been involved in similar conduct. Guido Fawkes has got stuck-in in customary fashion with a few comparisons, and much coverage has been given to Tom Watson’s statement that Parliament has been “afraid” of the media.

Few would dispute that politicians have often pandered to the media, but that question is hardly new and has been debated for years. Journalists would no doubt argue that they write what will sell, and are an extension of the public. They both keep the public informed and exert pressure where they think the public wants pressure. Politicians would argue that the effect of journalists writing what will sell leads to malpractice and a single-minded obsession with “getting the story”. This in turn leads to highly selective reporting at the whim of the editor and misrepresentation of facts.

Of course politicians are “afraid” of the media – they can make or destroy a political career. The famous Blair request for “eye-catching initiatives” suggests a close and dangerous relationship between politicians and the papers. The “spin machines” of Westminster have often courted the papers to try and portray parties in a favourable light or slam opposition. Yet although the papers have been happy to grab the extra information, a good story may out-rank a source, hence the coverage given to the expenses scandal.

So here’s a thought. Political parties have often tried to woo the papers, with little reciprocation from the media. With Labour’s own PR machine effectively out of action until the leadership election, perhaps this all amounts to a bit of revenge. MPs have had enough, and now is a rare opportunity for a bit of payback. Where a fight between media and politicians leads is anybody’s guess, but if the story continues I wouldn’t expect the news cycle to be a quiet one in a few months time.

 

*Technically, it’s not hacking. Or tapping. See this handy post on Dizzy for a bit more detail.

Have MPs Learned from the Expenses Scandal?

I’ve finally listened to the Any Questions debate from Friday (which much like more regular blogging, ended-up slightly lower down on my to-do list than expected). One of the more interesting moments was Ed Miliband’s mention of a loss of faith in politics as a consequence of the expenses scandal.

This seems to be the received wisdom – that the absurd claims on many MPs’ expenses forms somehow damaged the public’s belief in our democracy. Similar claims were made by Tom Watson in relation to allegations of “phone tapping” made against Andy Coulson*.

I can’t help but question the extent of this. If an angry member of the public were to meet an MP and summarise what they felt, which of the following is more likely?

1. “I’ve lost faith in politics. I don’t think our political system is functioning.”

2. “I’ve lost faith in politicians. You’ve abused your position for personal gain.”

The expenses scandal was never about politics or the system. People stopped trusting individual politicians to represent them, because bluntly speaking, they seemed to be in it for themselves.

By all means reform the system, and declare a “new politics” that is “progressive”, but are we all forgetting what was wrong in the first place?

I’m not suggesting we throw out all MPs and start again, or that there is nothing wrong with the system. Nor am I suggesting that all politicians are “in it for themselves”. But it seems all too easy to move from blaming politicians to blaming politics and the system.

 

* Maybe more on this later when everything’s settled down.