Britain's opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband. (Reuters/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)

London—On the weekend before the Conservative Party conference, on a day when the Tory press would normally beat the drums for the latest tax cut for the rich or a new scheme to punish the poor, why would Britain’s Daily Mail instead focus its considerable firepower on the corpse of Ralph Miliband—an academic at the London School of Economics who has been dead since 1994? As the playground bully of British politics, the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre has long been famed for both his temper—his frequent resort to the “c” word during Mail news meetings caused staffers to dub them the “Vagina Monologues”—and his iron grip on the mentality of Middle England. Unlike Rupert Murdoch, who was perfectly willing to be courted by Tony Blair—and whose papers backed New Labour—the Daily Mail has always been a proud beacon of British reaction.

But there was still something odd about the paper, during a week when the Conservatives were desperate for press attention, launching a full-bore attack not on Labour party leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband but on his father. Under the headline “The Man Who Hated Britain,” the Mail described Ralph Miliband, a Belgian refugee from the Holocaust who fled to Britain in 1940 at the age of 16 and served three years in the Royal Navy, as a man with “a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder” who loathed his adoptive country.

The article’s thesis—that “Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father”—was laughable. Ralph Miliband’s 1961 classic Parliamentary Socialism is a savage indictment of the futility of trying to bring about significant change through the British Labour Party. By choosing parliamentary careers, both his sons rejected their father’s worldview. As Ed commented last week: “My father’s strongly left wing views are well known, as is the fact that I have pursued a different path and I have a different vision.” Nor would Ralph’s own politics—a blend of Marxist skepticism of the intellect and social democratic optimism of the will—actually make him much of a red bogey-man. As the more genteel, but equally right-leaning Daily Telegraph noted in Ralph’s obituary, “Though committed to socialism, he never hesitated to criticise its distortion by Stalin and other dictators.”

So what was the attack—which largely rested on a quotes from a diary entry written when Ralph was 17—really about? Politically, it seems obvious that after two years spent dismissing Ed Miliband as ineffectual, and a summer in which the right-wing press clung heroically to the fiction that the Labour Party was about to indulge in an orgy of schism and self-destruction, the attack represented a desperate attempt to dislodge the inconvenient truth noted by The Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan back in August: “Labour has had a poll lead over the Tories from the moment Miliband was elected leader.” And by any rational calculus Labour remain the clear favorites to win the next general election.

Recent weeks have only underlined the Tories’ difficulties. The British economy, though technically out of recession, still stubbornly refuses to behave as chancellor George Osborn promised it would. Instead of delivering growth in time for the May 2015 election, the Tories now have to sell the public on seven more years of austerity! David Cameron’s personal appeal remains reasonably strong—but even that minority of Britons who didn’t agree with Ed Miliband’s successful move to block Britain from rushing to war in Syria now see him as a strong leader. Perhaps most worrying of all for the Tories and their friends in the press, the two signature policies unveiled by Miliband at the Labour Party conference earlier this month—a freeze on energy prices for two years and a promise to force property developers to build on the land they’ve been holding or force losing it to government confiscation—have both proved wildly popular with the public. Despite valiant efforts by both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express to suggest that such measures would send Britain back to the darkest days of the 1970s, British voters, who have experienced an actual wage cut for as long as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have been in power, simply weren’t buying. Even The Spectator’s exclusive revelation that Ed Miliband, when asked recently by a Labour activist “When will you bring back Socialism?” replied “That’s what we are doing. It says on our party card: democratic socialism” has not been enough to frighten the horses.

But if the politics of the smear are straightforward, the cultural meaning is more complicated—and much nastier. Miliband himself, feeling a line had been crossed (perhaps by the Mail’s use of a photo of his father’s headstone with the caption “grave socialist”), demanded a right to reply. The Mail duly obliged—only to re-run the offending article on the same page as his reply, along with an editorial attacking Miliband’s “evil legacy and why we won’t apologise.”

Paul Dacre was never going to back off. Indeed the paper followed up a few days later with a classic red-baiting attack on Stalin’s “left-wing British apologists” that struggled to link Ralph Miliband to the gulag. However even Dacre must have been surprised by the outrage his paper has provoked—not just among Labour supporters but by Tory grandees such as Michael Heseltine (John Major’s deputy prime minister) and John Moore, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Lord Moore, a former student of Ralph Miliband’s at the LSE, accused the Daily Mail of “telling lies.” Even David Cameron, though careful not to criticize the Mail, said “if someone attacked my dad I would do the same thing,” while Liberal Democrat leader (and former Nation intern) Nick Clegg tweeted his support.

Interestingly, the Twitterverse was also the setting for a furious debate that has only broken into print today—namely about how much anti-Semitism was a factor in the Mail’s attack. The Jewish Chronicle, a paper that, like the bulk of its readers, tends to lean rightwards in British politics, detected “a whiff of anti-Semitism.” Perhaps I’m being touchy, but it seemed stronger than that to me. Of course the Mail was careful—the initial attack was written by a hack named Levy, and when it was challenged by the BBC the paper but up not Dacre but a Jewish deputy editor, Jon Steafel, to defend it. (Though even Steafel eventually admitted that the use of Ralph Miliband’s grave was “an error of judgement”).

Levy’s article may have looked like a political hatchet job, but it relied for its emotional force on an appeal to a set of tropes and associations—Jewish Marxist, refugee intellectual, rootless cosmopolitan—that come right out of Der Stürmer. Or, as several commentators have pointed out, the Daily Mail of the 1930s, when Viscount Rothermere, the current publisher’s great-grandfather, backed Oswald Mosley’s Fascist blackshirts in Britain, applauded Hitler’s rise in Germany, and penned a personal paean to “the sturdy brown-shirted young men—and their brown-frocked girl helpers—who have taken over the rulership of Germany”!

As the novelist Linda Grant observed: “For Ralph Miliband to fight for Britain was not enough (actually, it was barely mentioned in the original piece). He had to bend his knee in obeisance to his adopted country. Surrender free speech and opinion. And his son inherits his ‘bad blood’, as another old anti-Semitic trope has it.”

Does the Daily Mail’s reversion to type mark a daring new departure for the “dog whistle” racism long favored by David Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby? Or will the backlash against the Mail campaign actually spike that once deadly weapon? Stay tuned…