by Atul Hatwal
Last week Ed Miliband, gave a major policy speech at the IPPR. One of the biggest of his leadership. The Labour party mounted a significant press operation around it: there was the mandatory trail to the Guardian the previous night, lots of morning chatter on Twitter among Milibelievers about what a big deal this all was with shadow ministers deployed to comment immediately following the speech.
But within two hours of Ed Miliband finishing his Q&A, the story was elsewhere. Rather than discuss the deeper policy or electoral ramifications of the intervention, the media’s attention was captivated by something else entirely: owls.
The Labour party’s twitter account was hacked with this tweet going out.
The rest is history. An analysis completed for Uncut by Twitter analytics experts, of tweets by the Westminster media (lobby, press gallery, columnists, political reporters and bloggers) illustrates the extent to which this one rogue tweet overshadowed the big Miliband speech.
From the point Ed Miliband stopped talking, to the end of the day, there were over double the number of media tweets about owls compared to Ed Miliband’s IPPR speech.
By the early evening, loyalist MPs were having to use the owls meme to crowbar Ed Miliband’s speech back into the Westminster conversation.
— John Woodcock (@JWoodcockMP) June 19, 2014
The media fall-out for Labour was best summed up by Jonathan Haynes, web news editor at the Guardian.
Bit sad for Labour that on a day Ed Miliband gave a speech about policy people are only talking about owls.
— Jonathan Haynes (@JonathanHaynes) June 19, 2014
Arguably the sudden fixation with owls is a reflection on the fickle nature of the press corps. It’s also likely related to the viral nature of Twitter.
But more than anything else, this minor episode illustrates a very big problem: how Labour is losing the battle for media relevance.
When opposition leaders are in the ascendant, the press tend to go overboard hanging on their every word, reading ideological and political significance into every last pause and nuance that issues forth from their lips.
Think back to those articles before the last election trying to rationalise a coherent ideology behind the Big Society. Or the equally vapid attempts to philosophically systemise the Third Way almost twenty years ago.
What happened to Ed Miliband’s speech was the opposite of that.
The Labour leader’s peroration was full of policy substance and the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report, which Miliband was launching, is chock full of measures that Labour could yet adopt.
But one tweet about owls and all of that was passé.
The reality is that the media’s reverence for an opposition leader is directly proportionate to that leader’s perceived proximity to power. If Westminster’s scribblers believed that Ed Miliband was headed to Number 10 next year, then the owl tweets would have constituted a few minutes mild distraction before returning to a sober and sonorous discussion about the implications of Milibandism for Britain.
It’s almost as if we are watching the scene from Back to the Future when Marty looks at the photograph and sees members of his family vanishing. That’s what’s happening to Ed Miliband.
Slowly, but surely, Labour’s leader is fading from the political photo. Last week it was owls. Next week it might be squirrels. Or the weather. Or anything at all.
Unless he and his team work out a way to reverse the process, by the time of the election, even unveiling a time-travelling De Lorean and a Doc Brown endorsement might not be eye-catching enough to re-insert Ed Miliband into Britain’s electoral picture.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut