What sort of prime minister would Miliband make?

For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour.

Part of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech earlier this week, signalling seismic changes in Labour’s relations with affiliated trade unions, was the boldness of his move. Not to be rude, but we’re not used to that from Ed. Cautious and incremental steps are what we usually get. It begs the question: what sort of prime minister would he make?

Last Friday, an unnamed former Labour minister told the Guardian that Miliband needed to move decisively in reframing the relationship with the trade unions, following the Falkirk selection debacle. "We need to have a commission that looks at the union link. All the general secretaries need to sign up to it. We need to get to a place where you simply have one category of Labour party members. There should no longer be a formal union affiliation.

"Of course, if unions want to donate to the party they can. Ed is not there yet. But he will be. He acts in a deliberative way. But when he makes a decision he moves very rapidly."

And so it came to pass. Miliband showed he was willing to square-up to Unite and announce changes revolutionising trade union involvement in the party that many observers thought were beyond him. Tony Blair’s glowing tribute was both genuine and generous. So does this week signal the emergence of Miliband 2.0?

Not really. His move was a superb piece of reactive political boldness (it’s hard to think he had such major reform in mind two weeks ago). Opportunistic, rather than instinctive, but decisive, too, when his mind is made up; and being able to react to big events is, after all, the stuff of the premiership.

In an interview last month, Lord Stewart Wood, shadow minister without portfolio and invariably described as Miliband’s consiglieri, offered this assessment of his boss: "In terms of style, Ed is collegiate. He looks for views early, before he makes up his mind. Gordon [Brown] wanted us to respond to his ideas [after] he had already taken them a long way down the line." He added: "Unlike a lot of other politicians, he invites people to give him constructive criticism. He has a desire to improve [and] he solicits views from people across the party."

As a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, and later energy secretary, Miliband was a mainstay throughout 13 years of Labour government and saw first hand the damage done to the government by the Blair/Brown wars. If his "collegiate" style is a reaction to that, then Wood is certainly right about his willingness to learn and improve.

But the government machine he would inherit in 2015 is markedly different to the one he left behind as a cabinet minister in 2010. The social democratic model of the New Labour years is now defunct. It is not enough to throw money at projects and move on to the next thing. Spending cuts and those infernal 'hard choices' will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Miliband will need to speak the "language of priorities" and know a thoroughbred idea from a civil servant’s hobby-horse in order to make his small state socialism work. For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour. Here he can learn from his predecessors.

Blair was good at building an effective team around him, yet there are still too few Milibandites willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for their man. While Gordon Brown ruled by pulling a thousand strings and making the Whitehall machine do his bidding, Miliband often gives the impression of making things up as he goes along. Yet despite this, he is far better prepared for the realities of power than Blair and Brown were in 1997 and his shadow cabinet is one of the most experienced since the Second World War.

Temperamentally, though, Miliband seems closer to President Obama than any of his immediate British predecessors. He is prepared to address vested interests but does so cautiously in closely-scoped terms, witness his criticisms of banks and energy companies, and sometimes seems unsure how far to push things.

Perhaps he should triangulate between Tony Blair’s informal sofa government and Margaret Thatcher’s manic swinging handbag? Where Miliband’s bridge-building style will work well, though, is if there’s another hung parliament in 2015; exercising soft power to build alliances and seek common ground in a way neither Blair nor Brown were well-suited to. For those who balked at the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband a week ago, how he would govern in 2015 has suddenly become a very real preoccupation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.