Opposition and scandal

As the phone-hacking scandal brings increasing torment for Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, and David Cameron; the Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has been thriving.

In truth, Mr. Miliband has been on the rise for a number of weeks.  His personal low point since winning the leadership of his party last Autumn, had been early last month, as supposed revelations of party dissatisfaction, his brother’s ambitions for the leadership, and his poor performance at Prime Minister’s Questions had all begun to weigh heavily on his shoulders.

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband has serious strategising to do before 2015

But he has fought back. By tackling the Prime Minister on key policy detail, he finally found a strategy capable of dismantling the usually bombastic, “Flashcam” style that Cameron had been utilising so well in their exchanges in the Commons every Wednesday. He also delivered a speech announcing his responsibility agenda, an idea largely developed by close ally Maurice Glasman – the intellectual Godfather of Blue Labour, with which he has sought to reconnect the Labour Party with working class voters. The theme of responsibility has informed much of Mr. Miliband’s recent attack on News International, in particular his strong stance on Rebekah Brooks, whom he asked to “take responsibility” and step down from her position prior to her resignation last week.

It is the ongoing crisis at News International that has truly completed Ed’s renaissance. He has repeatedly been ahead of Cameron on this issue; preempting him in calling for immediate public inquiries, demanding that the Parliament session be extended to debate the issue, and continually criticising Cameron’s judgement in the appointment of Andy Coulson.  Mr. Miliband’s has been a turnaround greater in size than any of Cameron’s much mocked policy U-turns; he now looks stronger and more secure in his position than his opposite number. But before Miliband’s supporters get their 2015 election party balloons out, I can see at least three reasons for caution:

Scandals don’t actually bring governments down

Since Watergate, British and American governments have been in constant fear of so-called scandals bringing down their government. But it might be the case that such fear is misplaced, particularly with regards to phone-hacking.  Firstly it is not strictly a government scandal. Whilst the eventual effects will probably be felt across the country, and David Cameron has been pressurised over his appointment of former Director of Communications, Andy Coulson, this remains a scandal of the press rather than of the government.  David Cameron has been mildly implicated, but his indiscretion is not worse than the sleaze surrounding Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to the Labour Party in 1997 and the apparent political favours he received as a result.  The cash for peerages scandal was an extreme attack on British society and democracy but the Labour government was able to ride through it.  President Bill Clinton, in perhaps the most famous scandal of recent times, was able to absorb the pressure of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, be impeached, and still come back to see out his term and be popular enough to have won again, had he been allowed to run.  Given the robust history of government in situations of this type, calls for the end of the Coalition are deeply misguided at this point.

Difficult for opposition leaders to translate isolated issues into electoral success

If they manage to survive at the time, it becomes difficult for the opposition to utilise these issues for political gain at election time, because by then the public is more interested in what will be happening for the next five years rather than one thing that occurred during the last five.  This fleeting quality is pronounced with phone-hacking because it has struck very early on in this Parliament, but given the impact that this issue may have on the fundamental nature of the media industry going forward, and the public enquiries that are set to continue for a number of years, it may well retain a degree of importance in 2015.  One strategy for transforming short-term gain into long-term success is to highlight a particular issue as symptomatic of a broad range of concerns facing the country.  Ed Miliband will hope that his attempts to position phone-hacking within his narrative of responsibility at the top and the bottom of British society will give him credibility when he attacks the irresponsibility of not just the media but the bankers and the unions over the coming years and at the next election.

Miliband must look forward

In recent interviews Tony Blair has been arguing that centre-left parties win power when they are at the cutting edge of policy making, and can provide a positive vision of the future.  This was true of Blair in 1997 and must be the case for the Labour Party in 2015 if they are to dethrone the coalition government.  Miliband must acknowledge his party’s past failures and properly synthesise his personal idea of where Britain is heading if he wants to become Prime Minister.  Referring to the failings of incumbent governments are part of any opposition campaign, but Miliband will do well to limit tactics of this type, especially since he risks political damage due to the last Labour government’s own culpability for our current economic woes.  Mr. Miliband has much more to gain if he takes a light touch approach to the phone-hacking scandal in the future.  If he is energised, and motivated to take on other negative institutional structures, and if he now gains the confidence to properly flesh out and build upon the idea of responsibility in British society then it might prove to be a turning in this Parliament. Miliband can gain from phone-hacking in the long-term, but he must be politically astute in his approach to this issue and not merely opportunistic.


Posted on July 27, 2011, in Labour Party, Looking Forward, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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