Pick of the Week: Sturgeon and media sexism

Our most popular articles of the week, for your reading pleasure

Five: BBC Debate: A bleak night for the Conservatives

A throw-over from last week, when we were still assessing the effect of the so-called 'challengers' TV debate'. The underhand tactics employed by the Conservatives were on show throughout the week – not least when they pretended, seemingly with a straight face, that a Miliband speech on Libyan post-war planning involved him calling Cameron a murderer. But regardless of how the media interpreted the event, the polls remained as unchanged this week as they have been for months: both parties are on 33% or 34%. There's no sign of either building much of a lead before polling day.

Four: Miliband is now most likely to be next prime minister

We took a closer look at post-election outcomes and came to a conclusion which is gradually picking up support among political experts and journalists: even if he wins the most seats, Cameron is unlikely to remain prime minister. Whichever way you do the numbers, the centre-left grouping (get used to that sort of language) of Labour, the SNP, Plaid, the Greens, Respect and others is dominant. Under this assessment, Miliband becomes prime minister of a minority Labour government working some sort of arrangement with the SNP and others. How long he would remain prime minister in that scenario is another matter entirely.

Three: You don't deal with Katie Hopkins by calling the police

As news emerged of another tragedy in the Med, Britain's worst columnist, Katie Hopkins, wrote one of the most irresponsible pieces ever printed by a British newspaper. It is now subject to a legal challenge and condemnation from the UN. But in this column we argued that criminal charges are not an appropriate way to deal with Hopkins. Instead, pressure should be brought to bear on the Sun for publishing the piece.

Two: Refugee crisis: Only take in Christians insists Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage wasn't doing much better himself when assessing the result of the tragedy. Instead of expressing compassion about the deaths, he started separating out refugees on the basis of religion. He was at it again later in the week when expressing his preference for Indian and Australian immigrants over eastern Europeans. As usual, Farage acts as a symbol of political persuasion: people self-define by their opposition or support for him.

One: Media sexism against Sturgeon shows how far our politics has to go

Our top piece of the week looked at the media's treatment of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose enemies in the media have adopted an unmistakably gendered tone when attacking her. It's all a long way from the TV debates, where women have stood opposite their male counter-parts in equal numbers and often outperformed them. But things on Fleet Street move slower than anywhere else in the country and it'll likely be a while longer before the press refrain from this sort of coverage.

Cameron bears responsibility for migrant boat deaths – but Miliband isn't brave enough to say it

Even by the standards of general election campaigns, the Conservatives continue to act in a highly disreputable manner.

Ed Miliband will make his first and probably last foreign policy speech of the election today, laying out, among other matters, the failure of post-war planning in Libya, the subsequent collapse of the country and the ensuing tragedy of the migrant boats coming to the EU.

Senior Tory sources seized on a section suggesting Cameron was responsible for each stage of this process. It was an example of Labour's "negative and personal campaign". Miliband is accusing the prime minister of "murder", they said. Online, Tory supporters described it as "cruel" and "nasty".

What did Miliband say to justify such a frenzied response? See for yourself:

"In Libya Labour supported military action to avoid the slaughter Gaddafi threatened in Benghazi. But since the action, the failure of post-conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya's political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.

"What we have seen in Libya is that when tensions over power and resource began to emerge, they simply reinforced deep-seated ideological and ethnic fault lines in the country, meaning the hopes of the revolutionary uprisings quickly began to unravel. The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated. It should have been avoided. And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle."

Plainly Miliband did nothing he was accused of. The negative campaigning and underhand tactics are disproportionately coming from the Conservatives. From Michael Fallon's stabbed-his-brother-in-the-back attack, to the efforts to turn English against Scottish, this has been a particularly pernicious and damaging election fight. 

HMS Cumberland in Libya. Miliband accuses Cameron of not doing enough post-war planning in Libya

As it happens, the migrant boat deaths are the responsibility of David Cameron and UK government ministers, but not because of Libya. Last October, in a policy statement which David Cameron now studiously ignores, Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay said the UK did not support search-and-rescue efforts in the Mediterranean because it encouraged more to try to get here.

She said:

"We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."

Outside of a small Twitter outcry, the announcement did not trouble most newspapers or TV news channels. It certainly did not merit a mention from many politicians. But without funding, Italy's Mare Nostrum operation came to an end and was not replaced. This search-and-rescue op, which stretched all the way to the Libyan coast, had saved 150,000 lives over a year. Instead, an EU border patrol operation called Triton was set up. Humanitarianism turned into securitisation.

Since then, human rights groups say the death rate has increased 50-fold. The numbers of those who died so far this year is thought to be well over 1,000. In the same period last year it was 17.

So UK ministers are partly but directly responsible for migrant boat deaths and Cameron, as prime minister, shares that responsibility. The Tory sources say Labour is 'politicising' the issue. It plainly is not, but the issue nevertheless deserves to be politicised. After all, it was a political decision to end support for search-and-rescue. Yesterday Cameron told journalists outside the EU meeting that Britain "is always there". It’s simply not true. We're not. Cameron is the latest in a long line of British leaders who find it easier to issue that type of rhetoric than it is to act upon it.

And yet Miliband is not making this point in his speech. There are very few votes to be won in taking a compassionate and principled stand on refugees. Instead, he focused on the failure of post-war planning in Libya.

An RAF pilot prepares for a mission over Libya. Miliband has hardly discussed foreign policy since becoming Labour leader.

His argument does not bear much scrutiny. Miliband's own concern about Libya is frankly dubious. His speech today, the first on foreign policy he has made in years, is not really about Britain's role in the world. It is an attempt to play the statesman, to make it easier for him to pass the 'blink test' of voters imagining him in Downing Street.

It is a shame to see Britain's interest in the world so diminished that leaders only bother talking about it so they can placate concerns over their image. The Labour leader has had precisely nothing to say about foreign affairs during his time at the head of the party so he will have to forgive us now for not taking his late concern about events overseas particularly seriously.

While his goal of robust multilateralism may be compelling, his own actions in foreign affairs have not lived up to his current rhetoric. His one achievement – to stop intervention in Syria – is now touted as an example of the Labour leader standing up to the might of the American war machine. That was not what it was like at the time. Back then, Miliband put forward a motion which was almost identical to the government's one and then split the vote supporting it.

It was not some principled stance against intervention. It did not even refer to any specific difference between the government position and the opposition one. It was a sort-of proactive avoidance of decision-making, a world-class fumbling of the ball, later to be dressed as high principle.

But the children killed in chemical attacks in Syria were no less dead. And Assad went on with his butchery as the international community stood limply to the side.

For Miliband to swagger on stage and talk about foreign policy when he has ignored it for years is almost as desperate and pathetic as the Tory attacks on his personality which it has provoked. Neither he nor his critics have much to offer on the subject. And it is telling that Miliband is unwilling to go on the offensive over the real moral disgrace – the UK's decision to end its support for search-and-rescue.

The Tory sources putting words in Miliband's mouth are closer to the truth than they realise.

Damning IFS judgement shows how much all parties have to hide

The Tories will launch devastating cuts to public services but they are unprepared to tell the public what they are. Labour is incredibly vague about how much it will borrow. The Liberal Democrats are doing Mickey Mouse mathematics with their deficit reduction plans. And the SNP are as committed to austerity as any of the other parties, despite their rhetoric.

That's the unappealing truth of this election. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which is becoming a supreme court of final judgement in British politics, lays it out in black and white in its report on the four parties' spending plans today. It has been elevated to this role because the parties themselves are so untrustworthy and journalists have become largely redundant. During the election, print journalists have mostly become party political press officers for whichever side their newspaper supports, while broadcast journalists are so terrified of appearing anything other than impartial that they refrain from the sort of useful analysis which might inform their viewers as to what's actually going on.

Any media outlet not straitjacketed by party support or made impotent by extremist neutrality is frozen out of proceedings. They are handpicked to be able to watch Boris Johnson and David Cameron talk to schoolchildren. They are penned-in, away from leaders, so they cannot ask them questions. The morning press conferences which structured previous elections are gone. Interviews are almost all turned down. Party leaders won't even talk to the public, let alone the press.

This near-hysterical level of control is interpreted as a desire to avoid a Gillian Duffy-style gaffe. But there's more to it than that. This is an election which is fundamentally about lack of substance. Politicians don't want to be asked questions because they wish for the image of government and its function to be as distant as possible. We are seeing a campaign of misinformation: the Tory combination of tax handouts and magical deficit reduction, the Labour policy of criticising spending cuts and then pledging to do the same in the future, the Lib Dem pledge of sound economic management despite knowing they will follow whatever the economic policy is of the party they happen to end up in bed with, and the SNP lie of being anti-austerity when their plans are broadly in line with everyone else's.

These various efforts to mislead the public were mapped-out in detail by the IMF today.

The Conservative plans are predicated on £5 billion of largely unspecified anti-avoidance measures, £10 billion unspecified cuts to benefits and £30 billion cuts to unprotected government departments, which were not mentioned in their manifesto. Areas like defence, transport, law and order and social care are facing cuts of just under 18% next parliament, on top of the 18% they lost last parliament. So in ten years, many of Britain's most vital government departments will have lost nearly 40% of their funding. It is an extraordinary sweeping-back of the British state.

The IFS goes on:

"Since the Conservatives' plans imply the greatest reduction in borrowing, the Conservatives have the greatest job to do in terms of setting out how they would achieve this. Despite this, their detailed tax policies are a net giveaway of 0.1% of national income, their detailed social security measures would only provide a tenth of the cuts that they have said they want to deliver, and their commitments on aid, the NHS and schools would (relative to a real freeze) increase spending on these areas by 0.3% of national income. So the Conservatives need to spell out substantially more detail of how they will deliver the overall fiscal targets they have set themselves."

Labour at least can be given credit for the fact that those measures it has detailed will boost tax revenues. But they "have been much less clear about exactly what level of deficit reduction they want to achieve and by when". This is problematic given the image of high financial responsibility the party promoted during its manifesto launch. The party provided "disappointingly little information on what they would borrow". Surprise surprise.

The Lib Dems are aiming for the mid-point of the Labour and Tory plans, presumably for political rather than economic reasons. But regardless of their equidistance strategy, they share the failings of the other two.

"They have failed to spell out details of how they would achieve much of their tightening, relying heavily on unspecified measures to reduce tax avoidance and evasion (£7 billion) as well as some unspecified social security cuts (£2 billion). They are also relying on cuts to departmental spending (£12 billion), although (unlike the Conservatives) these were mentioned in their manifesto. Their plans require real cuts to departmental spending of 3.4% between 2014–15 and 2017–18 (or 9.0% outside of the NHS, education and aid). This is predicated on their aspiration to raise 0.3% of national income (£7 billion) from highly uncertain measures to reduce tax avoidance and evasion by 2017–18."

The SNP have sold themselves as the anti-austerity party and Nicola Sturgeon has won rave reviews for her principled and dignified attacks on Ed Miliband's support for austerity during the TV debates. So it is strange to discover that they would have a longer period of austerity than under the other three parties. Any tax rises would be negated by their tax giveaways. As the IFS concludes: "Their stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric." But to be fair - and to the SNP's credit - it was "the one major party not to have used largely made up assumptions... on tax avoidance to try to make their sums add up".

The report's authors conclude:

"Unfortunately, the electorate is at best armed with only an incomplete picture of what they can expect from any of these four parties."

Afterwards the parties dove in and handpicked whichever bits of information were useful to them. Labour said it proved the Tories would deliver the most extreme cuts. Tories said it proved Labour was unclear about what it would borrow. And on and on. None of it is false, but all of it is deeply misleading given how comprehensive the condemnation from the IMF was today.

In the end, the report was probably most damaging for the Tories and SNP. Labour is not running on an economic competence platform, even though it flirted with it last week. The Tories are – so the accusations of throwing around magic money are doubly damaging. The Tories also suffer because the report discredits the idea that the SNP will drag Labour to the left. There's been plenty of lunacy over the last few weeks about a Miliband-Sturgeon Marxist alliance in Downing Street. The truth is, the only radical thing about the SNP is their rhetoric. There is actually a remarkable degree of correlation between the two parties' economic plans – and the extent to which they mislead the public about their principles.

But picking out an individual loser from the report is not useful. There is more than enough blame here for us to spread it around equally. The IFS shows why the parties don't like to answer questions: they are purposefully running this campaign in the most misleading way they can.

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