“There’s a strange strain of bullying going on at the moment, of Ed. If I took a photograph of you eating a sandwich I could make you look like a muppet if I wanted to, there is something rather distasteful about that. Playing the man means you’re not playing the ball.”
So said John McTernan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and expert in internal Labour Party politics.
If you believe McTernan, Ed Miliband is the victim of a witchhunt by the right-wing press, who, determined to stop the Labour leader from becoming Prime Minister next year, are pouring bucket after bucket of bile over his head. His, ahem, problems with photographers? Bullying. Polls finding the public think he is weird? Bullying. (Relatively) gentle teasing of his party’s press office offering voters a free owl? Bullying.
This is effectively a less successful version of the tactics employed by UKIP ahead of the European elections. Then, Nigel Farage’s party vociferously attacked media bias, convincing voters that the party was victim of an onslaught by the ‘establishment press’. Not bullying, but unfair victimisation. The metropolitan elite is running scared, UKIP told us, that is why you are seeing all these negative stories in the media.
Problem one for Miliband, concerningly for a leader of the Labour Party, is that, unlike Farage, he is not seen as an anti-establishment figure fighting against the Tory elite. Hence claiming to be victimised by vested interests isn’t going to work.
Problem two is the way Labour has gone complaining about the behaviour of the press. Moaning, whinging, crying “bullies!”; this makes Miliband look like he is grassing up a naughty classmate to a teacher for giving him a Chinese burn, not genuinely making a point about how we conduct our politics.
The third problem with the Labour line that Miliband is being bullied by the press is that it is not strictly true. Yes the Tory-leaning papers are not missing any opportunity to give him a beating up over whatever ill-advised situation he has found himself in this week. But it is not really anything out of the ordinary eleven months out from an election (see Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock et al).
The concerning truth for him is that the most damaging stories about him appearing in the newspapers are not Tory attacks, but quotes and briefings from inside the Labour Party, even inside his own inner circle.
This weekend, Miliband’s former speechwriter defected to the government, telling the Sun on Sunday that “it would be a disaster” if Labour won a majority next year and that the party’s economic policy is “nonsense”.
In the Sunday Times, a member of Miliband’s team was asked what they would do if he became Prime Minister. They replied, “I’d get the hell out of there as fast as I could”.
One Labour frontbencher briefed that “we communicate in a language most people neither speak nor understand”, another Labour MP that “it is back to the Michael Foot era, if not worse, in terms of capability and the ability to lead”.
Of course the press is heavily scrutinising the Leader of the Opposition, the man who wants to become Prime Minister. It rightly happens every election, readers and voters expect it and it probably has only a moderate effect on the voting intentions of undecideds. Red on red attacks from within the Labour Party are different.
Those who know Miliband best are questioning his competence and his ability to lead his party let alone the country. This is not bullying. If in a year’s time we all are writing pieces about who killed Ed Miliband, the answer will not be the right-wing press. The ones caught holding bloodied knives will be his own friends.