Ed Miliband struggles to put rift stories behind him

"Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense."

This morning's Independent on Sunday has two Father's Day gifts for dad of two, Ed Miliband: one welcome, the other not.

The first is a bullish interview with the Labour leader -- "No regrets. No crisis. Ed Miliband hits back". The second is a ComRes poll which has Labour neck-and-neck* with the Tories and, more worryingly, gives Miliband a net approval rating of -27 when respondents are asked if he is "turning out to be a good leader for the Labour Party". The latter figure is down ten points on a month ago.

The interview offers Miliband a chance to respond to some of the claims made in a new biography "ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader" by James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan, my former and present colleagues respectively.

One of the more explosive passages of the book suggests that while Ed Miliband recalls being open and honest about his intention to stand for leadership 13 months ago, David Miliband remembers things somewhat differently. Asked about these inconsistencies, Ed Miliband tells the IoS:

I'm not going to get into the detail of this. What we both agree on is that we talked before both our candidacies were declared and talked to him about the position too and we're both on the same page on that.

Yet it is in the detail where you will find the root of the unease between the two. As Mehdi writes in this week's New Statesman, drawing on his book:

Ed says he went to David's home in Primrose Hill, north London, on the evening of 12 May ... to inform him of his own decision to stand. In a story that Ed has since repeated to friends and in interviews, he says David was polite and understanding. "I'd rather you didn't run," David is said to have remarked. "I'd rather have a campaign where my brother is supporting me, if I'm really honest." But he then added: "I don't want me to be the reason you don't stand, so I think you should do it.

Or did he? Today, neither David nor Ed can agree on when or even if this crucial meeting occurred. David is emphatic there was no such meeting: his younger brother did not set foot in his house that week.

Another assertion -- that the brothers' wives Justine and Louise fell out over the leadership contest -- is dismissed as:

Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense. David and Louise were at our wedding a few weeks ago, and we had a great day. It was great that they were there and enjoyed themselves.

(As the IoS's Jane Merrick points out, however, David and Louise didn't attend the North London party that followed the ceremony.)

Elsewhere this morning there is no shortage of advice for the younger Miliband. Martin Ivens, writing in the Sunday Times (£), argues that Labour need to fight the coalition from the centre where they would represent a far more threatening foe than from the left. He writes:

The perverse effect of [the unions'] left-wing militancy has been to unite Cameron's and Clegg's warring troops against a common enemy. The Liberal Democrats owe the unions nothing -- they have never donated to the party's coffers -- and despise them as political dinosaurs. The Conservatives, wobbling like jellies over health, have every reason to show some backbone in a popular cause.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona poses the following questions:

Was its engagement with New Labour, to borrow Blair's own language, "passionate" or merely "tactical"? Is Ed Miliband right to believe that you can shift the centre ground of politics when you are in Opposition? And is his renunciation of New Labour a step into the past or a handshake with the future?

*A YouGov/Sunday Times poll has better news for Labour (on 42 per cent), a five point lead of the Conservatives (37 per cent). The Liberal Democrats are back on 10 per cent.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue