Taking on press barons isn't brave, even in the Sir Humphrey sense

Ed Miliband didn't entirely chose to fight with the 'Mail' but has come out of it better than Paul Dacre. Whether voters will notice is another story

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Ed Miliband cannot shake off the legacy of Labour's civil war. No, not that civil war. I mean the division among the Blairites. Alastair Campbell was always straining at the leash to be allowed to attack the Daily Mail, but Tony Blair wouldn't let him. Blair shared Campbell's frustration, but never allowed emotion to overrule his cost-benefit analysis. He thought Labour would come off worse if he fought back against the Mail campaign against him and his wife.

In this, he was fighting the last war, namely that between Neil Kinnock and Rupert Murdoch. Under Kinnock – although it was against Kinnock's own instinct – the Labour Party had boycotted News International in solidarity with the print unions over the move to Wapping. This sanction was counter-productive: it ended in the grotesque chaos of Kinnock's head in a light bulb on the front of The Sun on polling day.

Blair once went to the Press Complaints Commission, over reports in 2002 that he sought a more prominent role in the Queen Mother's funeral, but it did him no good. People who disiked him thought he had, people who liked him did not care, and no one noticed that the PCC found that he had not.

Blair resolved to avoid repeating that mistake, and tried to hold Campbell back against the BBC over the allegation that the Iraq dossier had been "sexed up". But he seethed with resentment, at the Mail in particular, and wanted to tell it how he saw it – that the British press was a "feral beast" – before he left office. When it came to it, however, he chickened out. Instead of the Mail, he had a go at The Independent, a poor proxy, for being a "viewspaper not a newspaper". It was not his finest hour. And it did nothing to soften the Mail's hostility towards him.

So Ed Miliband, refighting the last war again, decided that it makes no difference. Appeasement, confrontation: Paul Dacre will hate you anyway and so you might as well take Campbell's line rather than Blair's. At least that way you get Campbell on TV, denouncing Dacre as a bully and a coward forputting up his deputy on Newsnight, and bringing good cheer to many Labour-leaning viewers.

Actually, Miliband and Blair were both right. Blair saw the chance to neutralise the Conservative press before the 1997 election, and he took it. Without conceding anything, he impressed Murdoch with his anti-establishment, modernising spirit; and he did better than he thought possible, securing the endorsement of The Times and The Sun. He ingratiated himself with Lord Rothermere, father of the present owner of the Mail group, who came out for Labour, although his papers continued to support the Tories. For a long time, though, the Mail titles handled the popular Blair with care.

Miliband is in a different position. By defeating his brother, he lost Labour's main chance of securing the support of the Murdoch newspapers. Thus there was nothing to be lost and public favour to be gained by demanding an inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal that started with the News of the World. There was little "brave" about "standing up to" a media proprietor who would oppose him anyway. And nothing of value was achieved by the Leveson inquiry, as the sub-committee of the Privy Council will confirm when it considers the latest spatchcock mechanism for press regulation this week. What was brave, in the Sir Humphrey sense, was to adopt an anti-business anti-free-market position that would ensure no business leaders, including Murdoch, would support him in the first place.

Miliband's war against Dacre and Rothermere is different. He had no choice when the Mail last weekend described his father as "The Man Who Hated Britain". He wrote a mild response pointing out that his father had fought for this country, and he can have had no idea that Dacre would publish it alongside an aggressive repetition of the original charge.

On balance, Miliband emerges better than Dacre from this battle he didn't entirely choose. The YouGov focus group conducted for The Times confirms that most people think Miliband was right to stand up for his father and that the Mail's journalism is suspect. That will probably outweigh the effect of reminding us that he is the son of a Marxist professor who might therefore be a bit out of touch. But these are not opinions that change perceptions of Miliband's character much, and they won't affect how people vote.

The transcript of that focus group of eight floating voters in marginal seats reveals that they had heard of Miliband's dispute with the Mail, could "understand him wanting to speak out" and yet none of them gave him credit for being "brave". And why should they? Miliband's great act of defiance of Murdoch over phone hacking produced not a blip on the political blip-o-meter.

Even more worrying for Labour, all the members of the focus group were sceptical about his plan to freeze energy prices, apart from one who thought it was a good idea but said, "I'm not sure he could deliver it", and they all quite liked what they saw of David Cameron's party conference speech.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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