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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.