The rumour of backbench discontent with Ed Miliband confirms that the general election campaign is underway, however it also tells us something about the nature of the media. With the possible exception of psychopathic dictators, all leaders face internal dissent and doubts about their ability. That's the nature of politics, whether in Westminster or the workplace. What gives this disgruntlement prominence is less a sudden shift in mood so much as creeping boredom. One of the unintended consequences of a fixed-term parliament, or more precisely of the 6-month long demobilisation it gives rise to, is the drying-up of substantive political news. We are in the deadzone, the phoney war. The media has yet to adjust to this new environment.
With the annual party conferences out of the way, the current agenda is being set by external events (the EU surcharge), pratfalls (Theresa May's recruitment and filing problems), the unavoidable bumps in the road that are byelections (now receiving far more coverage than in the past), and post-election policy promises that are barely coherent let alone credible (such as yoking the Universal Credit unicorn to immigration control). The political media is a beast that needs to be fed. If it can't get its meat and two veg, it will make do with prawn crackers, which explains the indulgence of UKIP. Thursday's Newsnight report on the supposed Labour plot saw Laura Kuenssberg squirming with glee at the prospect, while Allegra Stratton read unattributed quotes off her iPad on Hampstead Heath to make them sound more authoritative. Regardless of institutional bias, this was just rubbish journalism: sexed-up and with nowhere to go.
The ostensible trigger for the "Bonfire Night plot" was an editorial in the New Statesman, which shows that Jason Cowley is doing his job in trying to raise the magazine's profile while knowing full well there is plenty of time to fall in line behind Labour before polling day. Rubbish journalism again, but commercially astute. The "attack" recycled the usual ad hominen tropes: "Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. ... Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. ... Reflecting many years afterwards on Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee said: 'We were looking towards the future. The Tories were looking towards the past.' ... None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background." To us civilians, there is no rational explanation for the existence of Dan Hodges other than to make people like Cowley look reasonable in comparison.
The obvious irony is that the famously taciturn Attlee was considered even more uninspiring and lacking in empathy than the current Labour leader, and while he had the advantage of some "real world" experience in local government and the army, his background was very much that of an "old-style Hampstead socialist", despite living up the road in Stanmore: public school and Oxford, a qualified barrister, one-time secretary to Beatrice Webb, LSE lecturer. The fact is that most Labour leaders since the 1930s have tended to be either academics or lawyers, and have been semi-permanent politicians from an early age. It is lazy to imagine that this makes them incapable of understanding "the lower middle class or material aspiration". Beneath the bonhomie, there is a social and philosophical chasm between David Cameron and Essex Man vaster than any that exists between Ed Miliband and the inhabitants of Middle England.
Cowley's substantive criticism was, well, weird: "there exists a gulf between the radicalism of his rhetoric and the low-toned incrementalism of his policies". Call me picky, but I can't see how "one nation" or "responsible capitalism" qualify as radical rhetoric. That said, talking tough and then delivering modest policies is par for the political course, so I'm not convinced that there is anything particularly noteworthy about Miliband's sweet nothings. If anything, his "rhetorical gulf" looks rather narrow. Labour supporters are understandably exasperated at this criticism, both because a change in leader is improbable this side of the general election and because it serves to divert the focus from bread and butter issues such as the standard of living and economic security. They need to get used to it.
The implicit criticism being made by the media is that Labour, like all the other parties, has yet to publish its manifesto. Internal critics who demand an "articulate vision" blithely ignore the political dynamics. Six months ahead of an election is too early to launch key policies, as opposed to gestural bromides, both because their novelty will pall and because too much exposure will leave them vulnerable to critical erosion. A successful campaign requires momentum, and that means starting at the right time. The Autumn Statement in November and the budget in March are the key calendar events, so none of the parties will publish their manifestos before early April, which means another 5 months of bugger-all. It also means that UKIP face a battering if they publish an honest manifesto (i.e. a bonkers one), so expect them to try and sidestep this with "we have only one policy: a referendum now!".
This lack of policy targets has left the anti-Labour media scraping the barrel. The Telegraph has resorted to tempting Griff Rhys-Jones into an early run-through of the traditional "Pete Murray", while recycling the last general election campaign to keep their hand in: "The party’s problem is that it is still run by the same people who crashed the economy into the wall just four years ago. ... They fail to see that a far greater impediment is the ineradicable memory of what the last government did to the country." You can sense the desperation in the choice of the word "ineradicable". The famously Miliband-friendly Daily Mail have inevitably joined the fun, but I sense that they are holding their fire until they think they can get off a kill-shot and pay the Labour leader back for Leveson. Think of it as a dramatic weight-loss diet ahead of their big moment on the red carpet.
The danger of fixed-term parliaments is that the media's appetite for novelty makes it vulnerable to opportunistic insurgents and policies made on the hoof during the phoney war. Boris Johnson's decision to publish his fanboy biography of Winston Churchill seems well-timed.