Why Ed Miliband has to be very, very careful

He’s having a good campaign for the Labour leadership -- but he shouldn’t get carried away.

There is a very interesting comment posted on James Macintyre's blog on last night's Labour leadership debate, hosted by the New Statesman:

Darren Canning
10 June 2010 at 04:15
Ed Miliband has to watch himself he doesn't turn the debate ugly. Right from his suporters waving placards and chanting as others arrived to his tone of voice and barbed comments during the debate his was the least comradely performance and left me feeling a little sick. We need a debate within the party not a war . . . been there, done that . . . wasn't any fun.

Darren has a semi-point. If Ed Miliband wants to win this race -- and he has showed steely ruthlessness and ambition in standing against his own brother -- he has to be careful to avoid creating any impression of arrogance, overconfidence or entitlement.

Hubris is perhaps the biggest danger for a front-runner (just ask Hillary Clinton). So, like Darren, I did wonder why so many of Ed M's pre-assembled "fans" had to sing and shout so much outside a party leadership hustings (!) -- and that, too, as the other main candidates tried to enter the Church House conference centre in Dean's Yard. Team Ed even barracked Diane Abbott as the poor woman tried to do a filmed interview with Channel 4 News, making tits of themselves in the background of the shot.

In fact, I overheard one of Ed's rivals for the leadership whisper to another, as they both left the building last night: "Do you have a group of supporters coming to the next hustings? Perhaps we should all get one." Or perhaps not.

That said, I think Darren is wrong about Ed M's "tone of voice and barbed comments". At the start of the debate, I provocatively asked the younger Miliband what one quality he had but David M didn't have that perhaps motivated him to challenge his big brother. But Ed M wasn't having any of it. He would only sing David's praises (and, of course, his own).

In contrast, the former foreign secretary responded in a rather personal and "barbed" manner: "If I thought Ed would make a better leader of the opposition or a better prime minister, I'd be running his campaign." (Cue laughter from the crowd.) Ed did manage some rather humorous lines of his own on the night, including his response when Ed Balls went over his allocated time and delivered a particularly long answer: "It's like being back in the Treasury." (Balls didn't laugh, or even smile.)

Ed M also had every right, I think, to challenge David M (and Andy Burnham) on Iraq, and over the continuing refusal of the latter pair to acknowledge fully the catastrophic disaster of the war in Iraq, as well as the political fallout from it. Should Ed M (and Ed B) have spoken out earlier on Iraq? Yes. Does that mean they should be silent now? No, of course not.

But, overall, the psychological drama playing out during this fascinating leadership contest, with all its Shakespearean undertones and incessant Cain-and-Abel references, is unprecedented. Never have two brothers slugged it out for the leadership of a British political party. It is rather odd, to say the least. Let me be honest: if my younger brother stood against me for the leadership of the Labour Party I'd be full of resentment, if not hatred, towards him. Perhaps that's just me and my oversized ego.

Then again, judging by David's facial contortions -- from eyeball-rolling to eyebrow-raising to exasperated head-shaking -- during Ed M's comments and answers over the course of the evening, perhaps big brother isn't feeling as charitable or loving towards little brother as he likes to claim. I wouldn't blame him. I suspect that Ed -- with his articulate, passionate and eloquent pitch to the party's left, on Iraq, on the banks, on a cheaper alternative to Trident, on the 50p tax rate, on the living wage -- is now the man to beat.

In both his opening and his closing statements, Ed Miliband rightly referred to the need to move "beyond Brown and Blair". Of the three front-runners -- Ed M, David M and Ed Balls -- he has the greatest chance of doing so. But it is a long campaign, and he has yet to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he has the mettle, judgement and charisma for the top job; in other words, that he is a prime-minister-in-waiting.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.