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