The ‘Red Ed’ campaign was a classic example of the media process of framing. However, despite the ferocity and intensity of the ‘othering’ campaign by the country’s two most popular newspapers, what is perhaps most noticeable is its lack of success. In this article, Ivor Gaber explores why the campaign failed to capture the public’s imagination.
In the summer of 2014, while Israel’s assault on Gaza and the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane in Eastern Ukraine were dominating the world’s headlines, the Leader of the Opposition in Britain gave a major speech—not about these world-shaping issues, but about his own negative image in the media. It might have appeared a curious move to make, although in the context of poll ﬁndings about his poor public image, it was understandable.
But to make sense of it all, one needs to go back to 27 September 2013, when the Daily Mail published a 2,000-word article about a left-wing academic at the London School of Economics who had died twenty years previously. The article was headlined ‘The man who hated Britain’, and the reason why the newspaper devoted so much space to a relatively obscure academic was explained in the sub-heading: ‘Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Senior really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country.’
But was it patriotic fervour or an attempt to resurrect a crude political (and some would argue ethnic) stereotype that really lay behind not just this article, but the campaign that preceded it and followed in its wake?
Two days prior to the article, the Labour leader Ed Miliband had told the annual Labour Party conference that an incoming Labour government would impose a price freeze on the energy companies. This, according to most commentators, changed the political weather and a summer of warm triumph for the Conservatives (with the British economy seemingly in recovery mode) instantly became an autumn of uncertainty.
On the following day came the Mail’s oﬀensive (in both senses of the word) — the notorious ‘Man Who Hated Britain’ article. Running across two pages, journalist Geoﬀrey Levy fulminated—no other word quite captures the tone—against Red Ed and his ‘revolutionary’ father. Levy painted a picture of a bitter Marxist revolutionary who ‘hated Britain’. Of the 2,000 words of the article, a mere ten were devoted to the fact that during the war Ralph Miliband spent three years as a volunteer in the Royal Navy. Instead, the reader was presented with a Svengali-like ﬁgure exercising an inﬂuence from beyond the grave over his son.
So why did the Mail launch such a tirade? The obvious answer is that, in terms of political stance, the paper has now placed itself on the far right of the political spectrum and, although the coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat government is not to its taste, above all the paper seems intent on doing whatever is necessary to prevent the formation of a Labour-led government. But there is another aspect of the campaign to demonise Ed Miliband—a campaign largely driven by the Mail but with enthusiastic support from other sections of the press (most notably the Sun), which has had as its principle narrative to characterise Miliband and the Labour Party as having moved to the left after the years of New Labour, which they have sought to encapsulate in the phrase ‘Red Ed’.
But despite the ferocity and intensity of the ‘Red Ed’ campaign by the country’s two most popular newspapers, what is perhaps most noticeable is its lack of success. Anecdotally, this author can observe that it is rare indeed, in fact if ever, to hear the ‘Red Ed’ moniker being used in any public or private space other than the newsrooms of right-wing newspapers. But beyond anecdote is polling evidence indicating that the British public has not bought into this campaign in any signiﬁcant way.
At the height of the ‘Red Ed’ campaign, the polling ﬁrm YouGov asked its respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements about the party leaders. The statement about Miliband that ‘He is too left wing’ received the lowest ‘agree’ score (26 per cent). A month later, Ipsos MORI asked respondents to put Cameron and Miliband on a left/right scale. They found that Cameron was placed further to the right than Miliband was to the left.
The ‘Red Ed’ campaign was a classic example of the media process of framing, deﬁned by Robert Entman, as the process by which the media ‘select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem deﬁnition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described’.
The ﬁrst way in which the Mail framed Miliband as ‘other ‘was in seeking to represent him as ‘alien’—a classic use of an ‘othering’ frame. To hammer the point home the Mail identified Harold Laski and Eric Hobsbawm—both Jewish—as particular friends and inﬂuencers of Ralph Miliband (and describing both as defenders of Stalinism). In rebutting allegations of prejudice the Mail, accidentally no doubt, confirmed them when it wrote: ‘We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons’—hardly surprising that this indirect reference to centuries old blood libel against Jews led Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland to talk about “a whiff of anti-Semitism”.
A related way in which the Mail framed Miliband’s ‘otherness’ was its emphasis on his background as the son of a Hampstead intellectual with no fewer than seven references to the fact that Miliband grew up in Hampstead. Even the fact that he went to the local comprehensive school was put into the mix, with headlines such as ‘The ﬁnishing school for left-wing politicians’ and ‘Hardly bog standard . . . Ed’s days at the Eton for lefties’.
The Mail, in emphasising Miliband’s ‘otherness’ characterised him as a ‘Marxist’ throwback to the seventies, wedded to a doctrine of state intervention and in hock to the ‘union barons’ who had helped get him elected. This in turn provided an umbilical link to the notion that he was a left-winger who symbolised a return to the ‘bad old days of the seventies’.
The Mail also characterised Miliband as ‘other’ by portraying him as representing a ‘rejection’ of traditional family values (something the Daily Mail sees itself as championing). This can be found in two separate but linked narratives. First, there was his decision to challenge his older brother for the leadership of the Labour party. And Miliband also challenged the Mail’s notion of family values by his apparent reluctance to marry the mother of his children, encapsulated in an article headlined ‘So will Ed Miliband now marry the mother of his son? (And why isn’t he on the birth certiﬁcate)‘.
Analysis of a failed campaign
So why has the ‘Red Ed’ campaign apparently failed to capture the public’s imagination? First, because we are now more than twenty years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘red scare’ clearly no longer has the potency it once possessed. This is not just because the ‘communist menace’ is no longer a realistic threat, but also because many of today’s voters were not politically conscious during the period of the Cold War — communism is something they may have read about in their history books, not something they fear as a realistic and ongoing threat to Britain today. In the same vein, the picture of the 1970s that the Mail, and other newspapers, have sought to reprise—the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent, and so on—is equally distant to anyone under the age of 50. And the historic fear of ‘trade union barons’, very much part of this 1970s image, is equally distant for many of today’s voters. That is not to say that, with suﬃcient presentational zeal, the Conservative party and its supporters in the press might not still be able to identify Labour with these negative attributes; however, for the moment, that does not appear to be the case.
But there are other explanations for the apparent failure of the campaign. This article has focused on the Daily Mail, which has been driving the ‘othering’ campaign. And whilst the Mail is an important and inﬂuential paper, in terms of both its readership and its perceived importance among policymakers and opinion-formers, there are countervailing forces. First, television news has far larger audiences and greater credibility than the Daily Mail— indeed, than the entire press—and the broadcasters have, by and large, signally failed to respond to either the ‘Red Ed’ campaign or most, but not all, other aspects of the Mail’s framing of Miliband.
The rise of social media has also been another important countervailing force. Social media—Twitter and Facebook in particular— are now able to oﬀer both alternative views and, at times, robust challenges to the political narrative of the mainstream media. Indeed, one of the major drivers of social media conversations is what the mainstream media is reporting, and whether or not it should be trusted.
But perhaps the most important reason why the ‘Red Ed’ tag has failed to resonate is that it does not contain the essential ingredient that a nickname requires to become eﬀective i.e. a signiﬁcant element of truth—an observation that reﬂects wider public perceptions or anxieties. The tag ‘loony left’ worked, and became part of the national conversation, because for many it did reﬂect what they saw as a reality and a threat. Stanley Cohen, in his ground-breaking study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, revealed how the popular media thrived on the fear engendered by narratives of malign outside forces threatening society— whether it be Mods and Rockers, extreme weather conditions, the latest infectious disease or anxieties about a supposed ‘invasion’ of foreign immigrants. Fear is a prime media motivator. Ed Miliband no doubt provokes many reactions among British voters, but fear is probably not the dominant one.
But one aspect of the Labour leader’s ‘othering’ has been successful and that is his supposed ‘oddness’. That Miliband is perceived as somewhat ‘weird’ does seem to have had some public resonance. A YouGov poll recently found that 41 per cent of respondents thought Miliband either ‘very weird’ or ‘somewhat weird’. Nor can it be denied that the press have played a prominent role in promoting the notion of Miliband as ‘weird’; and it has not just been the ‘usual suspects’ – the broadsheets have made relatively free use of the oddness agenda as well for whilst the Mail has remained marginally ahead in the weirdness stakes, it has been closely trailed by The Times, the Telegraph and, not far behind—perhaps surprisingly— the Guardian and Independent, leaving the Sun trailing in their wake. A strange ﬁnding indeed – almost, dare one say, weird.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Ed Miliband CC BY 2.0
Ivor Gaber is Professor of Journalism at the University of Sussex. He tweets from @IvorGaber.