The media, which has spent the better part of the nine months since Ed Milliband was elected Labour leader, pouring ridicule on him has now as a result of his handling of the Murdoch scandal suddenly discovered his qualities. The result is that where he was previously subjected to a torrent of criticism he is now receiving a cascade of praise. Journalists, particularly left of centre journalists but even some more right wing journalists, have been falling over themselves in praise of Ed Milliband’s brilliant handling of the crisis, which has supposedly rescued his leadership. The Independent a few days ago published an editorial saying that the scandal was the “making of a Labour leader” whilst in the Observer today Andrew Rawnsley in a typical piece says that as a result of the crisis Ed Milliband “has taken off his L plates”.
I agree that Milliband’s handling of the Mudoch scandal has been deft. At the outset of the scandal he demanded that the BSkyB bid be dropped, that there be a single judge led inquiry and that Rebeka Brooks should resign. All three of these demands have been conceded. In the meantime Cameron has been made to look uncomfortable and evasive.
Having conceded this point, I feel I must make the point that the Ed Milliband of the last two weeks was the same Ed Milliband who led the Labour party during the previous nine months. Ed Milliband was not “failing” as Labour’s leader during this period as the media said. On the contrary under his leadership Labour has been making steady if unspectacular progress as shown by the party’s electoral performance, which has improved substantially over that in the general election a year ago. Since Milliband became its leader Labour has won every by election it has fought and came first and substantially increased its vote in May’s English local elections. The defeat of the AV referendum and the SNP victory in the Scottish elections in May were not electoral disasters for Labour but for the Liberal Democrats.
This sort of progress would not have happened if Ed Milliband had not been leading the Labour party with some skill. Media criticism of Ed Milliband has been thoroughly misplaced and reflects the extreme disjunction which exists between politics as the media perceive them and as they are perceived in the rest of the country. As for Ed Milliband’s effective handling of the Murdoch scandal, this is not because he has suddenly discovered great qualities in himself that no one knew existed. Rather it is because Ed Milliband is and always has been a much more intelligent and skilled political tactician than the media (and his Blairite critics in the Labour party) have up to now wanted to acknowledge.
The same disjunction also exists with respect to the Murdoch scandal as a whole. Though the scandal has shaken the political geometry in Westminster and shocked the press, I doubt that it has had anything like the same impact in the country. One should remember that most people have daily contact with the tabloids and the police in a way that the sophisticates of the Westminster village do not. When it comes to the tabloid press and the police most people, at least in my experience, have always taken a pretty cynical view of them both. It will not have come as a surprise to most people that the Murdoch organisation engages in hacking, robbery and other criminal activity or that police officers take bribes.
For this reason I doubt that the electoral impact of the scandal will be very great. What matters to the larger electorate is the deteriorating state of the economy and the fact that the standard of living is continuing to fall as people become more and more financially pressed. I suspect that Ed Milliband, who strikes me as having a much better grasp of political realities than do his present admirers and previous critics, understands this fact well.