Brothers at arms

As the New Statesman hustings showed, the battle for the leadership of the Labour Party has at its h

On Saturday 15 May, barely a week after the general election and just five days after David Cameron walked in to 10 Downing Street, Ed Miliband used an address to the Fabian Society to confirm growing speculation that he was planning to stand for the Labour leadership.

“We have to use this leadership campaign as the first step on the road back to power because that is where we should be as a political party," he said to loud applause. It should have been a moment to celebrate for the former climate change secretary, popular with party activists and backbench MPs. Behind the scenes, however, it marked the culmination of days of intense and agonising deliberation.

A party leadership contest involving two siblings is unprecedented in British political history. Three days earlier, Ed's elder brother, the former foreign secretary David Miliband, had been the first contender to announce his candidacy, instantly becoming the outright favourite. "David is my best friend in the world," Ed Miliband told the Fabian audience. "I'm in it to win it, but win or lose, we will remain the best of friends and I will still love him dearly." He vowed that the contest would be "civilised", but later admitted that it was the "toughest decision of [his] life".

In the run-up to his surprise announcement - a "late, post-election" decision, according to a source close to the shadow energy secretary - the younger Miliband arranged a private, face-to-face meeting with his elder brother in London, the city where both had grown up. What happened at the meeting remains private and neither candidate is willing to discuss it. But, according to sources, Ed told David that he was minded to run. "I'm not going to stand in your way," David replied. For several months now, David has acknowledged to friends that "people are buying shares in Brother Ed".

“He was unfazed by Ed's decision," says one supporter of David. "He didn't throw his toys out of the pram." Friends insist that the two men, sons of the late Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, remain close, not least for the sake of their mother, Marion Kozak, who is helping to babysit Ed's year-old son. Nonetheless, they have been talking considerably less frequently than before Ed's announcement.

On the evening of 9 June, just hours after nominations for the Labour leadership closed, the New Statesman hosted the first official leadership hustings at Church House in Westminster. Tensions between the brothers were evident. Inside the cramped "green room", David Miliband was enjoying a light-hearted exchange with his fellow candidate Diane Abbott, whom he had that day nominated to help secure a place on the ballot paper. "I'm beginning to think I'll regret this," he joked, as Abbott smiled. Meanwhile, outside the room, Ed Miliband and his team of advisers huddled in the corridor. The brothers exchanged few words before the debate began.

On stage, in front of 600 people and the television news cameras, the exceptional nature of this particular contest was exposed. Pressed to explain why he had advanced his own candidacy, rather than that of his brother, the younger Miliband refused to be critical of the shadow foreign secretary, saying only that "David would make an excellent leader".

However, perhaps reflecting how much he had to lose from Ed's decision to stand, the elder Miliband replied, with a knowing smile, "If I thought Ed would be a better leader than me, I'd be running his campaign." The audience took a moment to react, but when it did, it was with a mixture of gasps and nervous laughter.

The brothers have distinct - but nonetheless similarly New Labour - political backgrounds, coming from opposing sides of the Blair-Brown divide. By a combination of fate and choice, Ed would become as close, and as loyal, to Gordon Brown as David was to Tony Blair. Miliband Sr - nicknamed "Brains" by Alastair Campbell - led the No 10 Policy Unit before Blair persuaded him to stand for parliament in 2001. The then prime minister, who appointed Miliband to the cabinet as environment secretary in 2006, called his protégé the "Wayne Rooney" of his ministerial team. Today, Miliband struggles to shed the crude "Blairite" label.

Ed, meanwhile, continued working for Brown at the Treasury - aside from a brief sabbatical at Harvard in 2003 - until he won a seat for himself in parliament in 2005. It was Brown who, as prime minister, promoted him to the cabinet post of climate change secretary in 2008, and also put him in charge of writing the 2010 general election manifesto. Throughout this period, although seen as a "Brownite", Ed Miliband was the only minister (other than Douglas Alexander, perhaps) who was trusted by the warring factions around Blair and Brown. From before Labour took office in 1997, Ed Miliband was frequently the linkman between the two. Among friends, he would privately despair at the darker side of Brown's spin operation, which would later undermine his brother.

Ultimately, however, Ed was one of the few cabinet ministers who consistently argued that Brown should be allowed to stay on as prime minister. Not only did he reportedly "beg" his brother not to move against Brown towards the end of the latter's premiership, but he argued with others against a coup. Unlike the Tories, Labour has no history of ousting its leaders, and Ed did not believe it should begin one with Brown. He is said to have remarked at one point last year that getting rid of the prime minister would be like "killing our father". This position contrasts with that of David, who is said to have told friends that Labour was heading for certain defeat under Brown.

Political tensions between the two brothers began to rise in July 2008, when - in one of Brown's lowest moments - Labour lost the Glasgow East by-election to the Scottish National Party. The younger Miliband was one of the few ministers to defend Brown publicly at the time. His brother, meanwhile, seen by then as Brown's strongest rival for the leadership, wrote a highly controversial article in the Guardian which attacked the Conservatives but made no mention of Brown, adding to the sense of crisis around No 10.

Ironically, it was in the autumn of 2008 that friends first started urging Ed to consider himself as a contender for the leadership. "Your brother is a red herring," one friend told the then climate change secretary. "You need to start to think of yourself as a future leader." At that time, Ed was not planning a post-Brown push to lead Labour, and would stare, goggle-eyed, at the very suggestion.

To the annoyance of some friends and supporters, he modestly described himself as "the other Miliband", as well as "the other Ed", a reference to Ed Balls, who also began his political career working for Brown at the Treasury. (My prediction in these pages, on 18 December 2008, that "Ed Miliband will emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown's natural successor", was distinctly unfashionable at the time.)

But despite Ed's initial reluctance we now have a contest. Journalists, activists and members of the public alike were taken aback at the manner in which the two brothers repeatedly clashed with each other for the first time at the NS-hosted debate. For example, David Miliband was keen to back the 2010 Labour manifesto in its entirety, while Ed Miliband - the author of that manifesto - distanced himself from it. "I'm not the kind of person who's going to stand on a manifesto in May and then in June tell you: 'By the way, I'm going to tippex out bits of it,'" David Miliband said. "How can you possibly say you're going to stand on every aspect of our manifesto?" asked Ed in reply. "We lost the election."

But it was on the Iraq war that the division between the two Mili­bands felt most heated. "I think it has been profoundly damaging to Britain, David, and I disagree with you on that," said Ed. "Ed says there is a difference on this panel over whether war is the last resort. That's wrong," countered David, as Ed shook his head.

The older Miliband refused to recant his support for the unpopular war; the younger Miliband claimed that he had always believed that the UN weapons inspectors should have been given "more time". (At this point David Miliband raised his eyebrows, as if to question whether that really was his brother's view in 2003.) "We cannot fight this contest pandering on Iraq and Trident or we'll be like the Tories on Europe," one Labour MP who supports the shadow foreign secretary said later.

The implication that Ed Miliband is merely saying what the party wants to hear is pushed by a circle of "Blairites", including Alastair Campbell, who has criticised him for "trashing" Labour's record. Campbell says Ed Miliband is "a nice guy", but would make "Labour feel OK about losing". According to his backers, however, Labour needs a thorough rethink of its policies and a fresh focus on "values" before it can even contemplate winning again.

The shadow Welsh secretary, Peter Hain, tells me: "Ed Miliband is the only credible prime ministerial candidate who really gets it - that we didn't lose just because of Gordon. We lost because we lost sight of our values. We became technocrats doing government, rather than mobilisers for a mission." He adds: "As Ed's very broad support also shows, he has that X-factor which inspires young people, whose support, along with over four million others, we must win back to win again."

Supporters of the elder Miliband reject the charge that David is a "technocrat", a word the former foreign secretary said was being "bandied around" at the NS debate. They point out that, aged 27, he was appointed secretary of John Smith's Commission on Social Justice, and that he acted as a "conscience" of the Blair premiership on a range of subjects, including foreign policy - where he objected, inside cabinet, to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

The former international development secretary Douglas Alexander, who deliberated over which Miliband to support, having formed a deep friendship with Ed as far back as 1990, emphasises to me that "David has good Labour values", and argues: "He can bring us together as a party and can lead us to victory at the next election." Alexander, despite his closeness to Ed, is now running David's campaign.

The former foreign secretary's supporters also emphasise his ability to make difficult decisions. And it is true that he has vastly more experience on the international stage. But Ed Miliband has shown a different sort of steeliness, and ruthlessness, in this campaign - not least by standing against his elder brother. Nor is David under any illusions that his single-minded sibling is not running to win.

One of the most memorable moments of the NS hustings came after Ed Balls produced a lengthy answer, preventing other candidates from joining in that particular discussion. Ed Miliband remarked: "It's like being back in the Treasury." Everyone laughed, apart from Balls, who did not even crack a smile. There was a sharp intake of breath from David Miliband. It was a lethal putdown from a politician whom some in the party had considered "too gentle" for a leadership campaign.

Another demonstration of Ed's newfound ruthlessness has been the way in which he has wooed Labour MPs. One influential frontbencher claims Ed phoned him to ask to meet for a drink. "I told him I was backing David," the MP tells me. "But he was adamant: 'Let's have a drink anyway.'" David remains the bookies' favourite, and has amassed support and funding from a range of figures, including the former chancellor Alistair Darling.

The Ed Miliband camp is keen to point out that it has fewer resources than David's well-funded campaign, backed in part by the billionaire David Sainsbury. "It's David and Goliath," one Ed supporter tells me, with his man presumably cast as the biblical David. The growing consensus inside the party is that in the end it is likely that one of the two Miliband brothers will become leader.

The result of the leadership contest will be announced in late September, on the eve of the party conference in Manchester, and almost everyone in Labour circles agrees that if one of the pair had given way to the other, the surviving candidate would be heading for an autumn coronation. But now, in contrast to the last time there was an open contest in 1994, the party will have to choose between two of its most prized assets. There has been no Granita-style "deal" this time.

Some suspect that Ed would find it easier to work under David than David would under Ed. Either way, senior Labour figures will be hoping that their relationship, despite being tested so early on in this campaign, will endure, for the sake of the party that both men seek to lead.

Meet the contenders

Andy Burnham
He has emphasised his northern roots and his "ordinary upbringing" in an effort to distinguish himself from his rivals. A former health secretary, Burnham has made the creation of a National Care Service a central plank of his campaign.

Best line from the NS debate: "If you're not New Labour, Next Labour but Our Labour, be part of my campaign."

David Miliband
The odds-on favourite to win, he was the first to declare. He is also the most experienced candidate, having served as foreign secretary from 2007-2010. His success may depend on the extent to which he can shed his undeserved reputation as a "Blairite".

Best line: "The worst thing that ever happened to Tony Blair was George Bush."

Diane Abbott
The Labour left-winger, who made it on to the ballot paper after David Miliband lent her his support, has cheered the party's grass roots with her opposition to Trident, Iraq and privatisation. Whether this translates into votes remains to be seen, however.

Best line: "Trident is a huge amount of money to spend to defend ourselves against the Tory press."

Ed Miliband
The younger Miliband has won support from the left by calling for the retention of the 50p tax rate, opposing a third runway at Heathrow and criticising the decision to go to war in Iraq. Widely praised as climate change secretary, his appeal extends to green activists.

Best line: "You have to base your alliances on your values, not base your values on your alliances."

Ed Balls
The former schools secretary has run a combative campaign, attacking the coalition over its alleged plan to raise VAT and urging Labour to rethink its policy on immigration within the EU. But his Brownite background may count against him.

Best line: "The Tory cuts are the biggest threat to a universal welfare state in 60 years."