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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred