So now we know how low they will sink. It’s pretty bloody low. We’re 19 months from the general election. Which means about 18 months from the short campaign when rhetoric is usually ramped up. The disgusting behavior of the Daily Mail over the past week is how it will be, but may well not be as bad as it gets.
Labour are no longer fighting just for a better government – essential though that is. We are fighting for a better way of choosing, scrutinising and challenging that government and their opposition. It is a battle that – for the sake of democracy – we cannot afford to lose.
As I typed that last sentence, I knew I would be accused of hyperbole. But I stand by it. Democracy is not that just “not a dictatorship” and it is more – so much more – than a free press whose definition of freedom includes hacking phones and smearing dead war heroes. It is a well informed citizenry able to critically assess both the information they are given and understand the filters through which it might be received.
At the last election 7 out of 9 daily newspapers backed the Conservatives. One Labour and One the Liberal Democrats. In readership terms it’s even worse. 85.86% of daily newspaper readers were delivered a daily Tory supporting message during the last election. In contrast only 11.78% received a Labour supporting message and just 2.1% a Liberal Democrat supporting one. Perhaps most shocking of all in this apolitical age is that just 0.76% of daily newspaper readers took a paper that was not openly supporting one political party or another.
Now let us remind ourselves of the actual results of the elections, where the Tories won 36.1% of the vote, Labour 29% and the Liberal Democrats 23%. From these figures it is clear that those whose job it is to scrutinise all politicians on our behalf are considerably skewed towards supporting one party. Despite the fact that their readership do not wholly match their politics.
You might argue from those figures that it doesn’t matter. Obviously, the papers endorsements are not changing elections in quite the numbers that their readership suggests that they should. It seems a lot of people agree with the truism “you can’t always believe what you read in the paper”.
But this massive distortion of political support does skew the atmosphere in which politics is conducted. It moves where consensus on “the middle ground” is and changes scrutiny of ideas that should be questioned (like austerity and expansive fiscal contraction) to bun fights over who can best implement such policies. How can this be anything other than harmful for democracy?
And now it is doing far worse. It is poisoning the atmosphere beyond the debate of ideas and the cult of leadership. Just as David Cameron has decided that a race to the bottom is a solution to our economic problems, so his supporters have decided that a race the gutter is their best chance of ensuring his reelection.
Dacre and crew over at the Mail and Mail on Sunday may have pushed this too far, too fast (to coin a phrase). By going so hard so early, and being stood up to by a brave politician in a way they are utterly unused to, they may have opened up a space for our national debate to improve. By showing their hand too early, they have let slip how bad they were to become.
The Leveson Recommendations are still to be parlayed into a Royal Commission – a decision on what shape that will take is due (long overdue) next week. As we hear stories of a journalist crashing a memorial service and intruding on a families private grief let us not forget that the trigger for this inquiry was a journalist hacking the phone of a dead child.
Ed Miliband has responded to the attacks on his father with a justified righteous anger. But his refusal to back down in the face of the Mail’s spite does not mean that spite is yet beaten. It could still continue to be directed at Ed and at Labour from now until the General Election (and beyond).
Labour will have to continue to stand tall, stand proud and stand firm. At stake is not just the next Labour Government, but the future of our politics. This is a battle we must win.