Ed Miliband's decision to pose with the Sun was a strategic blunder writes Des Freedman
Ed Miliband’s decision to pose with a copy of the Sun’s World Cup special that was delivered to households across the country is outrageous on so many levels.
First, it is smacks of desperation. Miliband claimed he was showing support for the team and not the newspaper but who will believe him? Hitching your electoral fortune to making peace with the Murdoch empire is about as sensible a strategy as depending on an England victory in the World Cup. If Miliband believes that the country’s top-selling newspaper is now less likely to attack Labour because its leader has opportunistically endorsed a one-off edition, he is being just a touch optimistic.
Second, it patronises Sun readers who aren’t going to vote Labour simply because its leader holds up a copy of their preferred newspaper. The fact that all the main party leaders affected the same pose is likely to increase suspicion of mainstream politicians, not to make them any more approachable. It’s like those pictures of politicians pulling a pint behind a bar as if to say ‘we understand your pain’ while at the same time pleading with their special advisers to get them out of there.
Third, it won’t help his personal ratings. Miliband has been at his most popular when he has attacked elite power and not bowed down before it. After his proposals at the 2013 Labour conference to freeze energy prices and to clamp down on payday lenders, his approval ratings increased 50% from 24% in early September to 36% a month later. His ratings also went up when he promised, shortly after the phone hacking scandal was revealed in 2011, to ‘dismantle’ Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Referring to the latter’s control of the UK newspaper market, he argued at the time that ‘that amount of power in one person’s hands has clearly led to abuses of power within his organisation’. His pose last week with the Sun suggests that he is now just a little more comfortable with this power.
Fourth, it reveals the political conservatism at the heart of Labour’s strategy. For every progressive promise – like scrapping the bedroom tax or repealing the gagging law – there are many more pronouncements that seem specifically designed to win the support of right-wing tabloid news editors. For example, in the midst of a highly polarising debate on immigration, Ed Miliband attacked the previous Labour administration for letting in too many Eastern Europeans while shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt’s response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham schools was simply to argue that his government counterpart Michael Gove had failed to act quickly enough to tackle extremism.
Fifth it suggests that Miliband is in hock to special advisers with a love of political marketing but very poor political instincts. The timing of this is baffling: why identify yourself with a newspaper whose former editor is currently awaiting the verdict in a long-running corruption trial? Why be associated with a title that so feverishly attacked Liverpool supporters in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster at the same time as the inquest into the death of the 96 fans is taking place? No wonder postal workers in Liverpool refused to deliver the Sun special last week. Indeed, it smacks of opportunism for Miliband to call for a public inquiry into the police’s assault on miners at Orgreave in 1984 when, two days before making this promise, he poses for a newspaper whose front cover the day after Orgreave showed miners’ leader Arthur Scargill apparently doing a Nazi salute with the headline, MINE FUHRER. Printers at the Sun were so enraged by this headline that they refused to print the paper as long as that was on the front page.
Not surprisingly, the whole episode has massively backfired on the Labour leader. Far from winning out in the patriotic sweepstakes, Miliband has faced fierce criticism from Labour supporters and has had to grovel to Liverpool fans earning him even more opprobrium from the Sun leader writers who attacked his apology and accused him of being weak. What did he expect?
Did Miliband or his advisers actually bother to ask about the content of the Sun’s tribute to ‘Our England’? Had they asked, they might have found out that key contributors were not Labour supporters but bitter opponents of the left including Tony Parsons (who left the Mirror because he felt that he had a ‘better political fit’ with the Sun on Sunday), Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle. Reflecting on what makes him proud of England, Liddle gloated that we ‘ruled a third of the world and were substantially less wicked when we did so than any of the other Western powers. We may even have benefited some of the countries we ruled – though that’s not a terribly popular view these days.’
If Miliband was genuinely committed to delivering social justice, he would challenge those kinds of views and articulate an alternative to continuing austerity and to immigrant-bashing. He would rediscover his promise to break Murdoch’s grip on British political culture and lay to rest the notion that you need to pander to newspaper proprietors in order to win an election. Yet, last week, faced with a choice of either tackling corporate media power or cosying up to it, he chose the latter. That is not a recipe for electoral success but electoral suicide.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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