by Atul Hatwal
A couple of weeks ago, the conversation among a small group of lobby journalists perched at a Westminster bar (what is the proper term for such a group: a conspiracy? A Pernod perhaps?) turned to an important question: do you think Ed Miliband can make it into Number 10?
Despite the polls, the government’s rolling omnishambles and even some of their own past articles, the answer was a resounding, “no.” No ifs. No buts.
So what, you might think. Just cynical noises off from Westminster insiders, irrelevant to most peoples’ lives.
True enough, but these are also the people who frame political debate in this country. The hive mind of the lobby, with its shared assumptions and outlook mediates political truth in this country.
It shapes the tenor of the articles across the press which then set the agenda for the broadcast media.
Since the budget, the lobby narrative about the Labour leader has been quite benign. It has run along the lines of, “Ed Miliband is underestimated and actually quite effective.”
It’s helped the Labour leader garner substantially more positive reviews from the media for his House of Commons performances, despite there being little substantive difference from the previous year when he was panned each week, and spawned a series of pieces talking up the prospect of Labour victory.
Fraser Nelson in the Spectator exemplified this tendency earlier in the month with his announcement of the “Age of Ed”. He declared, “Yes Ed is no showman. But maybe voters have had enough of charisma.”
For Labour’s spinners this has been manna from heaven: authoritative writing from the right that endorses the happy story of the headline polls. The twittering echo chamber of Labour activists, wannabe MPs, loyalist MPs, friendly bloggers and journalists has been ringing like Big Ben.
However, although this has been a relatively stable equilibrium for several months, there are signs that the situation might be about to change.
A few days after the Pernod of journalists wrote off Miliband’s chances, a poll came out which showed an absolutely enormous Labour lead – the Ipsos Mori survey which had the party 15 points ahead.
The poll was widely reported, but with a twist.
The articles all cited the large Labour advantage but then zeroed in on David Cameron’s commanding lead over Ed Miliband as peoples’ preference for prime minister. The story was the same from the New Statesman to the Daily Mail.
It was as notable as it was peculiar.
Ed Miliband has consistently trailed David Cameron in the leadership stakes in almost every poll, but this has rarely been such a prominent feature in reports of the polling. Almost every piece this time highlighted the gap between the leaders in the headline.
Two underlying factors suggest that the journalists’ harsh verdict in the bar and the emphasis on Miliband’s poor personal ratings in these poll stories might be more than just coincidence: the Labour leader’s approach to defining himself and the shadow of Leveson.
Since coming back from his summer break, Ed Miliband has tried to distinguish himself as a different type of politician by discussing concepts like predistribution.
This has failed with journalists on two levels: first, most are privately scathing about the strategy. Philosophising about capitalism seems like a sixth form indulgence that is irrelevant to their readers’ lives.
Second, the absence of practical policy examples after two years as leader means there is little new for them to report to extend the narrative arc of Ed Miliband’s quietly effective revival.
They have written about how he has been underestimated, how the government are a shambles and now need the next part of the story: how Ed Miliband will make things better for the country.
But it isn’t coming and the news momentum of the Ed Miliband recovery has inevitably slowed.
Unfortunately for the Labour leader, he is incapable of producing the practical policy content which the journalists need.
Not because he is unwilling, but he is trapped: the unions are forcefully trying to drag the party to the left on issues such as the deficit and welfare reform while mainstream public opinion remains resolutely in the centre.
The outcome is stalemate and an active avoidance of actual policy prescriptions.
In today’s Guardian, Ed Balls’ big interview notably promises a zero based spending review but makes no commitments on spending and only proposes a review after the next election. In terms of defining the change Labour would deliver for voters, it’s content free .
These issues with the press might take a while to ferment into a major problem if it were not for the impending report from the Leveson Inquiry.
When Lord Leveson produces his report, most likely calling for a tough statutory press regulator, most newspapers will be united in opposition. If David Cameron’s response, as seems probable, is to refuse to implement the recommendations in full, the likes of the Mail and Telegraph – hardly Cameron loyalists in the past few months – will lock in behind the prime minister.
It will polarise the media creating a viscerally hostile environment for Labour. The kid glove treatment that Ed Miliband has benefited from in the past months will be a thing of the past.
For example, in his recent interview with the Telegraph, the headline was a rather supportive “I want to save the capitalism my father hated.”
In the piece Miliband gave his moral judgement on wealth saying being rich was good, “only if you made it the hard way”, and his view of capitalism, calling it “the least worst system we’ve got.”
It’s not hard to see a situation where the headline for that interview might have been rather more antagonistic: “Millionaire Red Ed attacks capitalism and the rich.” Fanciful? Hardly, to anyone who remembers the treatment Neil Kinnock received.
Although the newspapers are holding back from pre-empting the Leveson report and are under a de facto reporting blackout, fighting the anticipated recommendations is at the very top of most of the owners’ commercial agendas, and all of the journalists know it.
The combination of a lobby that is deeply sceptical about Ed Miliband’s theoretical musings with a corporate imperative to back the prime minister could be disastrous for the Labour leader.
The narrative has not definitively shifted yet, but change is in the air.
The tone of reporting of Ed Miliband’s big speech on Tuesday will tell us a lot about where his personal coverage is headed.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut