The fight between the Miliband brothers: an update

On real differences, foreign affairs, “pandering” and the key question of this contest.

This is an unscientific, inconclusive and incomplete collection of thoughts on the Labour leadership, after several weeks abroad during what may have been the calm before the storm of the Labour leadership race and its conclusive stages.

It's not rocket science to say that the race is now strictly between the brothers, David and Ed Miliband, about whom you can read at more length here.

What is much less clear is which of them is ahead. There have been a few attempts at polls and evidence-based analyses, none of them adequate because of the unique, unpredictable and, in some cases, unreachable electorate of ordinary party members and trade unionists as well as parliamentarians. Therefore some of the judgement on the contest has to be based on the "feel" of how things are going here in Westminster and beyond.

It is worth pointing out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a real difference between the political messages of the brothers. This week and last, Ed has issued a number of statements, through articles and interviews, clearly aimed at: a) reiterating his message that the party must make a break with the New Labour "establishment" and b) appealing to "lost" Liberal Democrat voters in despair over Nick Clegg's personal and ideological alliance with David Cameron.

Tomorrow evening, however, David will respond with a speech being billed by his team as "the most important of his campaign so far". Word is that it will be seen, if not intended, as a political "attack" on his younger brother, warning against "pandering" to the party's core vote. If that is indeed the overriding message of the speech, it is likely to underline his support among many of the party's pragmatists.

But it may not be enough to win the race. For if Ed has managed to avoid too much criticism for being a "Brownite", David has not been as successful in shedding the equally (if not more) unfair label of "Blairite". Some suspect that this is because David is privately unwilling to disown Tony Blair over the one issue that more than any other will define his reputation: Iraq. Why else would David not have made it clear -- as is surely true -- that, had he been foreign secretary in 2003, he would have opposed the invasion?

And yes, foreign policy is key here. After all, it was David, not Ed, who was the lone voice in cabinet speaking out against UK support for the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon that finally did for Blair's premiership in the end. The idea that David Miliband, who forged a "post-Blair foreign policy" as foreign secretary, is an uncritical Blairite is wrong. And yet Miliband himself appears not to do enough to dispel the myth.

Perhaps this is for the same reason that Alastair Campbell refuses to "apologise" for an Iraq invasion about which he, too, is rumoured to harbour private doubts: to do so would unravel the Blair legacy. But David Miliband has to be brave and bold, and cut loose any baggage that is holding him back -- including (and ironically, given that Ed was if anything more responsible for it) much of New Labour's economic record, especially on regulation -- if he is to ensure victory.

Meanwhile, Ed could be criticised, if not for "pandering" now, at least for failing to speak out against New Labour orthodoxies when he was in power and, technically at least, at the heart of the New Labour establishment. Personally, I believe Ed when he says he was privately opposed to the 2003 invasion. But David might well be forgiven for thinking that the position was a lot easier to hold among friends than in government. Indeed, if Ed felt so strongly about it, he could have -- say -- written a letter to a newspaper, or made his position clear publicly in some other way.

Now, he may have to do more to convince the party and the electorate that he will take tough decisions beyond the end of this campaign. Having said that, Ed is surely right that the Labour leadership cannot go on defining itself merely as being against Labour values, as Tony Blair did far too much, and far more than David, to be fair.

Criticism and devil's-advocate arguments aside, that one of the Milibands will win is reason for celebration for Labour.

It has become fashionable to say that none of the candidates is ideal, and that may be true. But there is no doubt that the Miliband brothers are the most talented Labour figures of their generation. At the moment, it is, as the cliché goes, too close to call between them.

The key question remains this: which of the candidates can best persuade the electorate of the social-democratic case? May the best man win.