Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader

Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader
Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre
Biteback, 320pp, £17.99

Don't believe everything you read in the papers. The impression of Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader that has been created by the pre-publication news stories is no more accurate than the solicited commendations that appear on the back cover. Naturally, the authors knew it would be the allegations of bitterness and betrayal that made the headlines - and sold the serial rights. Yet there is far more to this book than what the subject himself rightly described as tittle-tattle. Indeed, it is fair to say that the narrative only skims the surface of the family feuds and frustrations. But then Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre skim the surface of almost everything in what is less a book than an exercise in sustained journalism, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre.

Much of the story that the authors tell happened too recently to make possible a serious judgement of its consequences. But Ed is at its best when it describes events that Hasan and Macintyre have had time to reflect over. The account of Miliband's record before the general election is an eloquent testimony to his qualifications for leading the Labour Party out of the wilderness of opposition.

“From foundation hospitals to city academies to tuition fees, Ed . . . had few qualms in expressing opposition . . . in the various discussions between No 10 and the Treasury," they write. He also urged Gordon Brown "to use his influence with Tony Blair" to delay military action in Iraq, going as far as to suggest that the then chancellor consider preventing the war by threatening to resign.

However, Miliband "made it clear to his parliamentary colleagues" that he "did not support" the attempted palace coup which followed Tony Blair's declaration that he would fight a fourth general election. Nor did he endorse the sub­sequent manoeuvres which ended with the announcement - made incongruously in the yard of a school in north London - that the prime minister would leave office in 2007. According to Hasan and Macintyre, "the younger Miliband did not have the courage to speak out publicly", and thus showed himself to be "as much a part of the New Labour establishment as his brother". It need hardly be pointed out that these conclusions are absurd. Blair had to go, but the way in which the campaign to depose him was conducted made a great contribution to the eventual election defeat. Loyalty to the Labour Party demanded a degree of discretion. It was Ed Miliband's record inside Labour, as a vocal critic of Blairism who did not allow his objections to prejudice the party's prospects, which left me in no doubt about who should succeed Brown.

Instant books that claim to tell the inside story of recent political events must, by their nature, rely on unattributable sources. The unusually extensive list of acknowledgements with which Hasan and Macintyre begin their book comes very near to apologising for "the extensive and unavoidable use of the phrases 'private interview' and 'private information'". Unavoidable it may have been, but the frequent appearance of the terms still casts doubt on the legitimacy of much of what the book claims to reveal. That is not to accuse the authors of invention; it is to blame them for repeating stories on which neither they nor the reader can rely. Anonymous informants enjoy the luxury of a free rein to their imagination, and their prejudices. And, as the acknowledgements concede, "the wounds from the divisive Labour leadership contest of 2010 have yet fully to heal". The invitation to speak "off the record" provides an opportunity for the casualties to strike back.

The unattributable anecdotes are (as readers will expect from a book written by two such accomplished journalists) remarkably successful in creating the impression that "we were there". The account of David Miliband's supporters interposing themselves "like a tag team" between Ed Balls and the general secretaries at a trade union reception - accurate or not - is the sort of story that brings the drama of the leadership election to life. Yet flies on walls rarely know when to stop reporting what they hear. The revelation that, at one meeting, Geoff Hoon told Hilary Benn to "stop heckling" him does not add much to our understanding of Ed Miliband and his motives.

Hasan and Macintyre tell us when Miliband decided to contest the Labour Party leadership, whom he confided in first, and how he told his brother, yet there is no serious analysis of why he chose to run. There is, however, a clue: "'Ed is an egalitarian,' says a close friend. 'He does believe that the gap between rich and poor really matters.'" As the book makes clear, Mili­band has been explicit on the subject. "Britain is grossly unequal," he has said, "in class, income and wealth - and that is what troubles me most about this country."

The younger Miliband is a true social democrat, with the evangelising zeal that is essential to a successful social-democratic party. That distinguishes him from Blair and the Blairites, and provides the ideological basis for the fightback that is yet fully to begin. l

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.