The extraordinary revelations of the past week, as grim fact upon grim fact is revealed in the News of the World phone-hacking horror story, are we all agree only the beginning. What comes next, we are also all agreed, is far from clear. Where will the political and cultural nemesis settle? What or who will self-destruct?
We have here two possibly conflicting fundamentals for those on the left of politics. One is the political imperative to gain the initiative in shaping future debate; and the other is ensuring that the cultural climate of the ‘morals’ debate to come is better, not worse, than what’s gone. The Labour leadership faces here a challenge of some dimension. Political responsibility and moral pronouncements on the public interest do not mix easily.
Ed Miliband has now managed to take the high ground, with his various calls for the delay of News International gaining yet more media influence, and for independent reviews of what has happened; but these are the obvious (and immediately critical) things. Less obvious, though at least equally important, is the tone which will be set for further disclosures and decisions, and the contexts, politically, for the debate about the public interest which was discussed in my previous blog.
There are omens both good and bad for the Left in the current scenario.
On the plus side, no-one disagrees with Miliband’s current main demands; and David Cameron will concede them all. At the very least, delay in awarding the BSkyB contract will occur, and how could there not be Reports of a far-reaching nature?
But where will Nick Clegg and his colleagues such as Vince Cable find themselves? Paddy Ashdown now says he warned David Cameron last year about Andy Coulson, Cameron’s ex-PR man; and LibDems will certainly support Labour in many of their demands.
This may be the beginning of the end for the ConDem Coalition. After recent electoral drubbings few Liberal Democrats will want to have any part in the Prime Minister’s inevitable attempts to save face, given the warnings which are now said to have come from the LibDem corner.
That much is relatively easy, perhaps. But setting the tone of subsequent developments may be harder, as I suggested in my previous blog. There are perils abundant in the moralising approach to politics, whether the issues are the Right’s favoured ground of single mothers and disability claimants, or broader issues of what the media should or should not do.
For the Left, there will be temptation to match the rhetoric of the Right on ‘family values’, with for instance equally didactic rhetoric about constraints on the media and curtailing business activity of various sorts. Getting the balance right for the longer term will be very difficult for Ed Miliband and co., as the hacking revelations continue to drip, drip into the public domain. People are both aghast and furious, and they expect a strong response from politicians too.
These waters are by and large uncharted, and therefore perilous. And there is one further current Unknown: how long now before the Coalition de-coalesces?
Will the ConDems disintegrate before or after the Tories have achieved the de-governance so deeply desired by Cameron, Osborne and their confreres? That’s the other really important question, and on its answer depends the Left’s strategy for everything else to do with the media nightmare before us.
We must hope that the last straw for the ConDems arrives before the race towards the moral mire becomes too compelling. Moralising proclamations can never substitute for political responsibility. The ConDems have already abandoned such responsibility, preferring to proclaim instead their deeply unfair version of what’s morally right.
The Murdock miasma means Liberal Democrats are now faced with fundamental choices; whose side are they on? Given their current internal tensions, it’s doubtful they can sit (or see) this one out.
Labour’s big challenge however is clearer: to reverse the Tory’s abandonment of responsibility for the public good, and to achieve a fair balance between personal and political responsibility. Breaking the ConDem conjunction, and the tone of the language Ed Miliband adopts in the next few weeks, are both going to be critical to getting there.