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.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad