Miliband has finally achieved total command – but will Blue Ed or Brown Ed take the spoils?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

There should be a word for the mixed emotions that working parents feel when their children’s teachers go on strike. Moral support for aggrieved educators clashes with irritation at the need for emergency childcare. What do you call solidarity softened by resentment? Semisolidarity?

One person who will be unperturbed by the pedagogic walkout on 17 October is Michael Gove. The Education Secretary is on a mission to smash what he sees as a reactionary educational establishment that protects its own privileges more rigorously than it pursues children’s enlightenment. Howls of pain from the NUT are his proof that the plan is working.

It doesn’t do the Tories any favours to alienate a profession that enjoys far more public sympathy than politicians do. At the same time, making parents feel like collateral damage in someone else’s war isn’t a winning strategy for teachers.

The big teaching unions are not formally affiliated to the Labour Party but that doesn’t stop Conservatives trying to make industrial action the opposition’s problem. Tories don’t need much of a pretext to call Ed Miliband a born appeaser of Trotskyite militants. Labour can truthfully deny all responsibility for strikes yet still be discomfited by them.

It is an awkward fact that unions do not inspire a comradeship outside the club of their own members. It is rational for public sector workers to fight against paltry pay rises and to defend their pensions. It is less obvious why private-sector workers at the bottom of the heap whose employers give them no pay rise and no pension at all should cheer them on.

This fracturing of labour solidarity is a crisis for the left. Austerity has not mobilised the masses against a government of capitalist oppressors. It has not galvanised the nation with a noble sense of collective endeavour. The evidence suggests it has made us more jealous in guarding what we have and likelier to suspect others of taking more than their fair share. Across a range of domestic and foreign policies, Labour is struggling to adapt to the mean spirit of the times. Activists cherish a welfare system that subsidises people who earn little or nothing with cash transfers from their neighbours. Public consent for that model is vanishing. The left venerates the anti-racist tradition of refusing to blame foreigners for shortages of jobs and homes. That creed is no match for fearmongering parables of an island nation being overrun. Miliband is an instinctive believer in the founding ideal of the European Union – that the continent’s destructive nationalisms dissolve in cross-border trade. Ukip’s depiction of Brussels as an occupying power has more popular credence.

It would be less of a problem for Labour if it were on the wrong side of public opinion on just one of those issues. Combine them and it looks like swimming against a cultural torrent. Yet in recent weeks Miliband’s entourage has been possessed by new optimism. The Labour leader believes his crusade to tackle the rising cost of living has disoriented David Cameron. He calculates that the Conservatives’ allergy to market intervention leaves the Prime Minister bereft of effective responses.

Meanwhile, the shadow cabinet reshuffle has allowed Labour to relaunch existing policy positions into a more receptive media climate. Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, declared that Labour would be “tough but fair” on welfare, which is what Liam Byrne had been trying to say. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, made the same compromise on free schools that Stephen Twigg made back in June (Labour would allow them only in needy areas and would call them something else).The interventions only felt new because the messengers were received as authorised Milibandites and not, as their predecessors had been caricatured, as Blairite provocateurs.

Labour MPs are now watching to see whether new confidence in the leader’s office translates into a more imaginative approach to politics or just tighter control. Seasoned Miliband watchers are familiar with the phenomenon of his two competing political personas. There is the insurgent idealist, the dabbler in “Blue Labour” philosophy that rejects the bureaucratic state as a mechanism for effecting social change. Blue Ed challenges orthodoxies and takes risks. Then there is the Westminster apparatchik who learned politics by watching Gordon Brown sneak up on power. Brown Ed avoids party confrontations and advances in tactical increments.

Blue Ed grasps that the hollowing out of political solidarity in Britain is an existential challenge to the left. He recognises that Labour needs to look and sound like a very different party if it is to turn his “one nation” politics into a genuine antidote to social division. Brown Ed can see a way to eke out the dregs of the old solidarity – public sector loyalists and visceral Tory-haters whose voices can be amplified by a dysfunctional voting system – to smuggle himself into No 10. Advocates of each path have access to Miliband’s ear. Most shadow cabinet ministers profess ignorance of what really goes on in the leader’s office, although they recognise that there is a battle between imagination and caution for possession of Labour’s future.

The moment when a leader asserts his strength is also the point when he is most exposed. After three years of managing divisions and battling disloyalty – some of it real, much of it imagined – Miliband has achieved total command. There is no obstacle to boldness. There is nothing to stop him being as fearless as his friends have always said he can be, which is what the times demand. Caution can be banished. But will it?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.