Show Hide image

Mehdi Hasan on Ed Miliband's race for the Labour leadership: Ed speaks Human

The younger Miliband brother’s emotional intelligence may yet upset the smooth progress of David.

I remember the first time I realised Ed Miliband could be the next Labour leader. Standing in a packed room at the TUC's Congress House headquarters in January, at Ken Livingstone's Progressive London conference, I watched as the younger Miliband brother, clad in a fleece and jeans, inspired a captive audience of party members, Trots, anarchists, Greens and, yes, Liberal Democrats. Speaking without notes, the then climate change secretary passionately made the case for tackling global warming, despite the depressing deadlock at Copenhagen a month earlier. "He's awesome, isn't he?" whispered the young woman next to me, her eyes alight with excitement.

Of all the Oxbridge candidates running for Labour leader, it is Ed Miliband who displays the common touch - or, in the words of Neil Kinnock, the "X-factor". "He has a special ability to lift spirits and motivate people - the capacity to inspire," says the former Labour leader. The younger Miliband's strategists and supporters have known from the start that this is their man's strongest selling point: his ability to reach out, in our new, plural era of coalition politics. Throughout this protracted contest, throngs of energised Ed Miliband supporters have descended on the various hustings holding placards proclaiming "Ed Speaks Human".

Let us be clear: Ed M is not JFK. Nor is he the British equivalent of Barack Obama. But he does have the all-important ability to connect with ordinary people, especially the young, and to motivate and inspire them.

Emotionally savvy

Why does this matter? Because elections are not won or lost on the intellectual prowess of party leaders. Few would dispute that David Miliband is the cleverest of the five candidates; he is an impressive debater with a formidable grasp of party policy and political philosophy. But so was Al Gore. And John Kerry. Yet both were defeated by George W Bush in successive presidential elections, in 2000 and 2004.

In his book The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, the US psychologist Drew Westen argues that Bush displayed a much higher emotional in­telligence than his Democratic rivals. "People vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments," he wrote. As Labour MPs, members and affiliated trade unions prepare to start voting for their next leader, they would do well to heed Westen's words.

But can the emotionally literate Ed pull off an upset and defeat his brother, David, the front-runner and the Labour establishment candidate? So far, David has raised far more money, and attracted more support, than Miliband Jr. "Honestly, hand on heart, we're much more confident of victory than we were at the start of the campaign," says a source close to David Miliband.

The decision by Jon Cruddas to endorse David will add to the renewed sense of momentum around him (see page 23). The Dagenham MP has long been regarded as the de facto leader of the influential left-of-centre pressure group Compass. His support will help David shed his perhaps undeserved Blairite reputation. "David is now the unity candidate [for right and left of the party]," says a friend. "It's Ed who is the disunity candidate."

But will Cruddas's support for David be as decisive as some would have it? It is worth remembering that senior figures in Compass - including the MPs Chuka Umunna and Jon Trickett, and Helena Kennedy, QC - are supporting Ed Miliband. Compass itself, plural and democratic to its core, is in the middle of balloting its members on which candidate the organisation should endorse.

The result will be announced on 3 September, two days after the ballot for the Labour leadership begins. I understand that its young­er, left-wing members are unlikely to opt for the elder Miliband. "Cruddas could find himself isolated in his own neck of the woods," says an ally of the younger Miliband, with a hint of glee.

What of the Ed Balls factor? Could he be the kingmaker? The shadow education secretary has had the highest media profile of any candidate and is excelling in opposition - but his leadership campaign ran aground long ago. "People just don't like him," says a shadow cabinet colleague, and most surveys and polls put Balls in fourth or fifth place. "I'm not going to pretend those figures are in reverse and we're ahead of everyone else," I was told from inside the Balls camp itself.

Much has been made of Balls's resentment of "the other Ed", whom he considered to be his junior at the Treasury in the late 1990s. During the same period, it has been reported, Balls and David Miliband used to meet at Churchill's, a café opposite the Treasury, in an attempt to keep open a line between the warring Blair and Brown camps. There is a long-held rivalry between them but also mutual respect.

Balls in his court?

So will Balls use his second preference to endorse David Miliband? "It's unlikely we'll see anything from Ed [Balls]," says a friend of the shadow education secretary. Another says it would be a mistake for Balls to pick one or the other Miliband. "What's in it for Ed? Why would he want to antagonise Ed [Miliband] by picking David, when it's still not clear which of them will win?"

If Balls does move behind David, there is no guarantee that his supporters will follow his lead. "I'm planning on giving my second preference to Ed Miliband," a key backbench ally of Balls tells me. "People keep saying that Ed Balls's supporters will go with David Miliband as their second choice but that's not what I'm picking up. There'll be quite a stir when the final votes [of MPs] are counted."

Outside the parliamentary party, there are other pro-Balls figures, such as Ken Livingstone, who would never consider making David Miliband their second preference. The same applies to the postal workers' union, the CWU, which is also backing Balls but prefers the younger Miliband over the elder.

Meanwhile, in the background is Gordon Brown, mentor to both Eds. He is privately said to be urging Balls to support the younger Miliband as the "stop David" candidate. It is ironic that Brown is now said to favour Ed M over (the arch-Brownite) Ed B. Perhaps he recognises that Ed M has the charm and emotional intelligence he lacked.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off