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.
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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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