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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.