Blairites, nearly men and BBC hacks

Furious Labour hacks round on sainted Ed, how David resembles Heseltine, and why BBC political pundi

Gosh, the Blairites are cross! In the Independent on Sunday, John Rentoul, Tony Blair's biographer, put the boot into the sainted Ed with reckless abandon. "He . . . panders to every oppositional instinct in the party. There has been no position taken by the Labour government of which he was a member that he was not prepared to trash . . . Tuition fees, Iraq, the third runway for Heathrow: you name it, he disowned it." In fact, Iraq was invaded before Miliband E even became an MP, while the decision on top-up fees was taken before he entered the cabinet. As for the third runway, there is no reason to doubt that he threatened to resign over it.

The Blairites should calm down. If David had won, he would have tacked to the left, reassuring voters he wasn't a Blair clone. Now Ed has won, his conference speech suggests he will tack to the right, countering the charge that, to use the media's curiously archaic language, he is a "red" in thrall to "union barons". How can the Blairites spurn a man who has already mastered the art of sonorous sentences denuded of verbs and meaning, as in "Real help matched with real responsibility"? I wouldn't be surprised if Ed's leadership turns out fractionally to the right of where David's would have been. Perhaps, as a fervent old Labourite, I should have voted for Miliband D, after all.

Middle-class muddle

The Blairites say Labour must not return to the "comfort zone" of appealing to its core supporters. What comfort zone? The British General Election of 2010, the latest "Nuffield" election study (quote marks because, for the first time, neither of the principal authors, ­Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley, is from Nuffield College, Oxford), has just dropped on my desk. It shows that, in constituencies where more than a quarter of the economically active population are working class, Labour's vote dropped by 7.9 points on average, against 4.9 points where less than 18 per cent are working class. A combination of working-class constituency and a sharp rise in unemployment was "especially toxic" for Labour, causing an average drop of 9.4 points, the study notes.

Nobody thinks Labour can win solely on working-class support, because routine and semi-routine occupations (as the government statisticians now call them) are no longer in the majority. The trick is to highlight how a disproportionate share of national wealth and income is being hogged by the top 10-20 per cent at the cost of everybody else, middle class and working class.

The Tories and their press allies shamelessly pretend that people earning above £60,000 a year constitute "Middle England", and the Blairites often behave as though they believe it. In fact, the median wage is below £25,000.

Close, but no hurrah

Most "nearly men" in British politics probably missed out because they didn't want it enough. Lord Halifax, Winston Churchill's rival in 1940, was more interested in riding to hounds than in high office; he took the Foreign Office in 1938 only after assurances that he could still hunt on Saturdays. R A Butler, who lost first to Harold Macmillan and then to Lord Home, said that, if not elected pope, "one can always be a res­pected cardinal". Rung by a cabinet colleague in 1963 and implored to "don your armour, my dear Rab", he replied: "I take note of your remarks, but now I really must doze off." Denis Healey and Kenneth Clarke both had an obvious hinterland beyond politics: photography and painting in one case, jazz and beer in the other.

However, some failures, such as Michael Hes­eltine, probably wanted it too much. Gordon Brown's misfortune was that his rival was equally single-minded. Having once been barged aside, Brown expended so much psychic energy trying to wrest back the prize that he was exhausted when he finally got it.

My impression is that David Miliband is more in the Heseltine/Brown than Butler/ Healey mould. There has always been something other-worldly about Miliband's intense engagement with politics. He once expressed surprise to me that there should be humour and articles about Christmas food in the New Statesman, and an Oxford contemporary recalled in the Mail on Sunday that he "never saw him even mildly drunk".

For him, the failure to win the leadership will be an immense blow whereas, to Ed, it would have come as no surprise - rather, just business as usual - to lose to his elder brother.


What is the point of the BBC political team?

As the results of the early voting rounds were announced at the conference in Manchester, Nick Robinson, the political editor, butted in to predict a David Miliband win, thus drowning out figures for the destination of some second preferences which, to political anoraks like me, were important.

I was reminded of when Gordon Brown resigned and the political hacks insisted he wouldn't be going to Buckingham Palace that night, even as his car turned down the Mall. Sometimes, pundits should just shut up.

Neither beer nor there

The medical profession's latest bright idea, it is reported, is for pubs to stop serving drink in glasses and instead give us plastic beakers, lest we cut each other's throats. I couldn't care less about wine, which is never much good in pubs anyway, but beer served in plastic cups tastes flat and flavourless.

Still, you can't be too careful. Perhaps all furniture should be removed from pubs in case we start throwing bar stools around (I've seen it happen in films). Or maybe pub landlords should inspect the length of our nails to ensure we don't gouge anybody's eyes out.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut