THERE was a sense from last week’s fallout over the Leveson report on press ethics and practices that Labour leader Ed Miliband had played a blinder.
He put himself on the side of the victims, and against the excesses of some newspapers, by backing all of Leveson’s recommendations eschewing what might be seen as the political expediency of cosying up to the press barons.
He is also setting the pace with his Christmas deadline for cross-party talks and getting Labour’s own press law Bill drawn up.
Meanwhile David Cameron’s defence of the freedom of the press is characterised as him getting back in with his old friends in the Murdoch empire and others. Publicly Labour looks united behind Leveson and this time has the backing of the Lib Dems, while the Tories are divided with at least 70 MPs angered by the Prime Minister’s resistance to a new press law.
And yet things are usually never entirely straightforward in politics. There are a handful of Labour people privately concerned about the direction their leader is taking them. At the moment Labour is on the side of the righteous, but one or two are asking how long it will be before the party is portrayed as the opponent of free speech and civil liberties.
After all, not so long ago this was the party which ended the automatic right of habeas corpus enshrined in English law since 1679, locked up children in detention centres because their parents were asylum seekers, wanted to hold people with no charge for 90 days and filled the streets with CCTV cameras.
Each measure had a reason, but nevertheless they were erosions of liberty and all the good intentions were undermined when councils started using terrorism laws to snoop on people. Many in Labour were uncomfortable with these moves and a few now have concerns about how supporting Leveson lock, stock and barrel might play out in the longer term – not least because the proposals could see genuine investigative journalists locked up with changes to the Data Protection Act.
But there is another problem over Miliband’s vow to introduce all of Leveson’s recommendations. It could end up as his “Lisbon moment”.
David Cameron as opposition leader famously promised to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty extending the European Union’s powers. Once in government though he backed off from this promise because he had other priorities. But the decision to break that promise boosted UKIP and caused fury among Tory backbenchers.
For Miliband, potentially coming into power in 2015, there is a strong possibility that if some new press regulatory body is in place, and working well, the moment will have passed. The question is whether he will then be accused of betraying the victims of the press in the same way Cameron betrayed the eurosceptics, and with equally damaging consequences.