It’s time to think briefly about 1992, again. Watching David Cameron’s made-for-television speech in Manchester last week some observed that he was trying to position himself as a kind of John Major figure, in contrast to a Kinnockish Ed Miliband. “Yes, government is a hard slog, and there are still difficult times ahead, but at least we know what we’re doing, unlike that dangerous lefty” seemed to be the argument. A similar pitch from Sir John (as he then wasn’t) in ’92 saw the Conservatives score one of their greatest ever victories, in the depth of a recession. It was, indeed, the last time the Tories actually won a general election. The anti-Major sneerers should (but often don’t) acknowledge that point.
So in what ways might 2015 be like 1992, and in what ways might it be different? This is an exam question I set myself once before and attempted to answer. So let’s focus on the specific “character” question that is most pressing after the unpleasantness of the past week or so.
It’s pretty clear that Miliband starts this week an enhanced figure. As Adam Boulton wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Times: “The Mail’s excesses, and Miliband’s willingness to stand up to it, turned last week into a giant car crash for his opponents.” And as Mike Smithson pointed out, new YouGov data suggest Miliband’s approval rating among Labour supporters rose by 45 points in the past month (although it is still down a little on his approval rating at the same time last year, in the wake of the One Nation speech). This month’s rise does not mean that a single non-Labour voter has been impressed, of course. But other poll findings indicate that a healthy majority of people think the Daily Mail overstepped the mark and that Miliband’s response was justified. Even most Mail readers think the paper should apologise.
This is why Sky’s political editor characterised last week as a “car-crash” for the Labour leader’s opponents, and why some of the supposed parallels with 1992 are breaking down. Except perhaps after his conference speech at Bournemouth in 1985, Neil Kinnock never enjoyed a week of such positive (and prominent) media coverage. But last week was significant for another reason. It means that Tory (and “Tory press”) attempts to turn Miliband into Kinnock Mark 2 will now be much harder to pull off.
Forewarned is forearmed. Even neutrals and those unsympathetic to the Labour leader have seen very clearly what some in the press are prepared to do to try and damage his name. And a lot of voters remember 1992. I seem to recall that at least one poll taken a few years after that election, asking people how they had voted, showed that Labour had apparently won. There was a good deal of “buyers’ remorse” in the air after Black Wednesday and the subsequent Tory meltdown. In short, attempted character assassination may still be on the agenda, but the public are wise to it. And in any case, the mainstream media, as most concede, are not the force they were 20 years ago. You can still throw a lot of mud from the pages of your newspaper, but these days less will stick.
Miliband did something last week that Neil Kinnock never could. He eyeballed (yet another) newspaper giant and called him out. And he did so without resorting to extravagant gestures or theatrical language. Watch the three minute clip again of his interview with the BBC’s Ross Hawkins. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. It’s clear that Miliband is a little reluctant to expose his family to further scrutiny. He seems almost embarrassed to be talking in this way. And he has to master what are obviously powerful emotions in order to get his message out straight.
But master them he did. It was all quite dramatic – like something out of an Arthur Miller play, with the protagonist fighting to clear his name, and to make sure the truth is known. I found it very moving.
I think the country – parts of it, anyway – were moved too. On phone-hacking, on living standards, on responsible business, on Syria and on energy prices Miliband has taken a stand and set the terms for debate. Last week he showed courage again. There can now be little doubt that he has what it takes to be a leader. And we have the Daily Mail, and Mr Paul Dacre in particular, to thank for that.