07.10.10

Brit Brothers Battle for Labour

The ultimate sibling rivalry is entertaining the UK as Ed and David Miliband fight for who will lead the Labour Party. But it’s a contest over style not substance reports Pete Hoskin.

What do you do when your brother is running against you? Britain has been experiencing a summer of great political theater as David and Ed Miliband fight for leadership of the Labour Party in the wake of the departure of Gordon Brown.

Either brother might have believed that they were born to lead the Labour Party. They were raised in a comprehensively political household, sons of the Marxist historian Ralph Miliband. The aristocracy of the left would use their family house as a salon, dropping by to set the world to rights. Both took degrees in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford, and both graduated fairly swiftly into Labour Party jobs. When they were both elected to Parliament—and then made Cabinet ministers at a young age—the party throne must have looked achingly close. But neither of them would have imagined they would fight each other for it.

“Assessing the political differences between David and Ed Miliband always struck me as the perfect tie-break question if interviewing for a Fabian Society research director.”

The betting shops in London are now all agreed: the next leader of the Labour Party, and successor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, will be a Miliband. Anyone who thinks differently can win £6 for every £1 laid down. But which Miliband? Each is seen as a disciple of past leaders. David Miliband was a head of policy under Blair, and is backed by a group of Clintonesque modernizing, triangulating politicians who believe in market forces. Ed Miliband worked for Brown, who believes in state power and a new era for socialism. After Labour’s election defeat in May, the party is looking towards these two men to lend them new energy and direction.

And emotions are spilling out all over the place. Take the party veteran gesturing towards a television screen in a pub last week. “Oh God, it’s David f***ing Miliband, dispensing his useless f***ing wisdom once again. He’s such a phoney.” Just one voice, in one Westminster drinking spot—but, worryingly for the elder brother, the same views are being echoed across the Labour party. Phoney, fake, unbelievable, discredited: these are the words that spill, with alarming ease, from the lips of David Miliband’s opponents. For a frontrunner, he has to contend with a cavernously deep well of skepticism about him and his politics.

There are few such grumbles about Ed Miliband. He has his opponents, as any politician does, but he is more of an unknown quantity—a valuable weapon in an area where familiarity quickly turns to contempt. “Ed’s a decent guy, and would probably make a decent enough leader,” one David-supporting MP tells me, “but his brother has the edge when it comes to experience.” Another smiles that “Ed is a good second choice.” The sharpest remarks are reserved for his stewardship of the Labour’s feeble election manifesto—but even they lack any true acidity.

This matters because, in Britain, leaders are most often chosen for who they are not—rather than who they are. Spite, rather than enthusiasm, fuels these contests where leaders are effectively chosen by their colleagues. It was a year into a world war before the maverick Winston Churchill was able to become Prime Minister. When Thatcher stood as Tory leader, she was described by The Economist as "precisely the sort of candidate . . . who ought to be able to stand, and lose, harmlessly." People are saying the same about Ed Miliband. He is pretty difficult to hate.

Labour’s public leadership debates suggest why this is so. Miliband E. fizzes with easy charm, and does much to reassure the party faithful that his “values” line up with theirs. Almost everything he says—be it that the Iraq War was a “mistake,” or that “ being a socialist is about being willing to criticise capitalism”—gives the audience what it wants to hear. It may be a cynical approach, but it guarantees the younger Miliband a warm response. By contrast, Miliband D. can seem cold, clinical and difficult. “Paranoid android” is how one Labour activist sums him up.

Ed Miliband’s supporters are excruciatingly aware of their man’s presentational advantage. They talk breathlessly about his “more robust” looks, or his “greater passion”—and have already adopted “He’s Human” as one of their unofficial campaign slogans. But they also believe he enjoys a deeper advantage by not being as closely tied to the failures of the Labour government as his brother. An unpersuasive point, you may think, given Ed’s CV. But with his work for Tony Blair, David Miliband was there from the beginning—and, as Foreign Secretary under Brown, in more prominent roles.

But it’s internal politics, not policy failure, which has turned a cohort of Labour figures against David Miliband. Ever since Tony Blair stood down as leader, he has been seen as a successor figure. In 2007, Blair was begged by his aides to endorse David Miliband over Gordon Brown, but he failed. “I remember one day, seeing Tony standing over the window mulling whether to endorse David,” said a former No10 staffer. “I told him: ‘David is waiting for your endorsement. Just say the word.’ But he didn’t.”

A year later, when it was clear that the Brown premiership was heading for oblivion, Miliband again agonized over challenging him—repeating, ad nauseam, to his friends, the old maxim that he who wields the dagger never wears the crown. This has left some wondering whether David Miliband has the necessary drive to be leader. His favorite drink—a half pint of beer, in a country where the basic unit is a pint—is seen by his detractors as emblematic of his personality. Failing, always, to go the full way.

Miliband D. would be ill-advised to ignore the trust deficit he has stacked against him. He may be the current favorite to triumph in September’s ballot, but credibility has an important role to play in this particular election. Against the backdrop of last year’s Parliamentary expenses scandal, there’s a fresh premium on politicians who, at the very least, appear to be honest and upstanding in all regards. And so the argument will run: if David Miliband can’t even convince his party, how will he ever convince the nation?

Besides, credibility, or the lack of it, may be all the Labour leadership candidates have to offer. One of the defining features of the contest, so far, is that there is so little to choose between David and Ed (and the three other candidates) on matters of substance rather than style. Even duller, there is no new guiding philosophy, no vision, no “Next Labour,” as David Miliband awkwardly puts it. Instead, both brothers are peddling a continuation of the Brown years, with a few different emphases on topics such as immigration and Iraq. The contrast with the coalition government—which is constantly having to find inventive ways to accommodate its Conservative and Liberal Democrat members, as well as the public—is stark.

The similarities between the leadership candidates may surprise observers who thought that Milibands D. and E. would slide gelatinously into distinct Blairite and Brownite moulds. But it comes as no surprise to Sunder Katwala, the general secretary of centre-left think tank the Fabian Society, who half-jokes that, “Assessing the political differences between David and Ed Miliband always struck me as the perfect tie-break question if interviewing for a Fabian Society research director.” He adds: “Those differences do exist, but they’re generally so subtle that they may not show up during this campaign.”

The longer this set-up prevails, the more it suits Ed Miliband. A Harvard graduate and student of Larry Summers, he is actively pursuing a similar strategy to Barack Obama’s against Hillary Clinton in 2008: rhetorical rather than political, the (relatively) new kid on the block against a remnant from the weary past. And there are signs that the momentum is snowballing behind him. The latest expectation is that the two most influential trade unions will lend their support to the younger Miliband. This is by no means a sure sign that he will win out in the end, but, given Labour’s arcane voting system where the unions have a third of the votes, such interventions could still prove decisive.

One thing is certain: the situation is trickier for David Miliband than it was before his brother entered the race. Even his closest supporters fear that Ed may win. But let’s forget that for now, and just look forward to some bloody fratricide over the summer. Labour traditionally disembowels itself after losing power, and the process is seldom edifying—but it never fails to entertain.

Peter Hoskin has been in and around the worlds of politics and journalism since graduating from university in 2006. He currently runs the Spectator's political blog, Coffee House, and writes about cinema, literature and culture as much as he can.