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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre: Ed Miliband’s stand against the Daily Mail could represent a significant political turning-point

He is the first party leader of modern times to confront the popular press

The circumstances are different, and the two politicians hardly invite easy comparison, but Ed Miliband has had a Stanley Baldwin moment. Throughout 1930 the Rothermere and Beaverbrook press tried to oust the leader of the Conservative Party, then, like Miliband, in opposition.

The climax was in the Westminster St George’s by-election of March 1931, in which the pro-Baldwin Conservative candidate Duff Cooper was challenged by a Mail and Express-backed opponent standing as an independent Conservative. Sandwich boards proclaimed that “A vote for Duff Cooper is a vote for Gandhi”, echoing a Daily Mail headline which imputed Cooper’s patriotism and referred to Baldwin’s pledge to award Dominion status to India. At a Queen’s Hall public meeting, Baldwin attacked the papers as “engines of propaganda” and uttered the famous sentence, probably suggested to him by Rudyard Kipling: “What the proprietorship of those papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

The Daily Mail’s attack on Miliband via his late father may more reflect an editor’s power than a proprietor’s. But the similarity is that Miliband is the first party leader of modern times to confront the popular press and the Daily Mail in particular, albeit on the specific issue of his father’s memory.

He has been helped, if that’s the word, by the McCarthyite tone of the attacks. But like Baldwin, he has broken long-standing rules by which politicians, however they much may dislike the paper’s attacks on them, fear its combination of professional skill and popularity among Middle England voters more.

Thus, senior serving members of the Government, from the Prime Minister down, have defended Ed Miliband’s right to defend his father against the attack. But with the notable exceptions of Nick Clegg and among Tories, Francis Maude, they have not actually criticised the Mail for printing it. Even though the injustice of it is well understood way beyond the left, as Lord Heseltine and the backbench Tory Zac Goldsmith have honourably demonstrated. As have two Thatcherites, the ex-Cabinet minister Lord Moore, who was taught by Ralph Miliband, and his unrelated namesake Charles Moore, who in a Spectator blog highly critical of Ed Miliband’s policies, lamented that the “Mail’s posthumous libel” had “managed to offend against taste and decency on multiple counts – attacking a man for his deceased father’s views, misrepresenting those views, attacking a Jew, attacking a refugee from Hitler”.

In the longer term, Miliband may have struck a blow for more than his own party. For Cameron, for example, the paper could yet prove a double-edged sword. No doubt he is counting on its backing in 2015. But one of many possible scenarios if Cameron wins a second term could be that he leads a campaign for a Yes vote in a European referendum – against the opposition of the Mail.

This may not greatly worry Michael Gove, who, while endorsing Miliband’s “moving” defence of his father, also pointedly defended the “freedom of the press” and its “right to offend”. Yet this is not a Leveson issue, however much the Mail tries to make it one. It is wholly possible to oppose statutory press curbs while welcoming a counter-attack by its unjustified targets. Baldwin (pictured) was not seeking to curb the press, only to argue back.

When he did so, everyone present realised how big a moment it was. Diana Cooper wrote: “I saw the blasé reporters, scribbling semi-consciously, jump out of their skins to a man.” Her husband won by 5,710 votes and went on to become one of the leading anti-appeasers of the 1930s. In time, Miliband’s stand may come to be seen as Baldwin’s was: a victory for the elected over the unelected.