Last week, Ed Miliband took to the stage of the Labour party conference in Manchester to deliver his first speech as leader of the party. He described himself as the leader of a “new generation of Labour”, possessing “different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics”. The message was that Labour had lost the radical reforming spirit of 1997, and that Ed was seeking to rediscover it. His support base may have been largely made up of trade unions and the left, but he was nevertheless keen to distance himself both from his Marxist father Ralph Miliband’s influence and his “Red Ed”nickname. His appeals to the left of the party with promises to tax the banks and to implement a living wage were counterbalanced by his flirtation with the Coalition’s policies. Ed explicitly rejected the “social conservative” label, but at the same time managed to extol the virtues of civil liberties, small communities and family values.
Labour according to Ed was constructed as a phoenix rising from the New Labour ashes. The achievements of the party were extensively listed, but Ed was also tellingly open about Labour’s mistakes. Labour had been too soft on the banks and immigration, had overridden civil liberties, and had been wrong to become entangled in the Iraq war.
Ed’s comments on the Iraq war prompted an immediate return by the press to their favoured “Miliband of Brothers” theme. Numerous press organizations gleefully filmed David’s refusal to applaud, and his snipe at Harriet Harman for doing so. Whilst David’s actions provided the press with yet more column inches on Miliband family dynamics, he was by no means alone in his resentment of Ed’s comments on Iraq. Alistair Darling, Andy Burnham and Jack Straw also refused to applaud, demonstrating the growing split between the old vanguard of New Labour and Ed’s “New New Labour” bandwagon.
Ed’s victory in the recent Labour leadership contest is so interesting precisely because of this split. The competition between the two brothers was so close that Ed only overtook his brother in the fourth round of the Alternative Vote system, finally beating him by just 1.3%. David had long been touted as Gordon Brown’s heir apparent. The two rather haphazard coups attempted in 2008 and 2010 saw David as a figure to rally around in the government, and David was the first candidate to step forward as a candidate following Brown’s resignation, scooping up 81 nominations.
David’s providential path to victory became more complicated as other contenders threw their hat in the ring. Edís announcement of his candidacy two days later was met with some incredulity in the press. In a game of political Top Trumps, David would surely pulverise Ed – he was the older, the more experienced, and as Foreign Secretary held one of the Great Offices of State in comparison to Ed’s lowlier role as Energy and Climate Change Secretary.
Ed’s subsequent victory was so unexpected that the Guardian ran a special article noting which journalist had predicted it first (the answer was Jenni Russell, last November, who conveniently happened to be a writer for the Guardian). His election was a rather vintage one, depending on the trade unions and affiliated societies as many MPs rallied around his older brother.
Was he the best choice out of the “DavEd” options? His brother may have been more experienced, and more popular amongst senior MPs, but he also lacked the necessary political killer instinct. The pictures of David gormlessly waving a banana at the press, his failure to rise to power through either of the attempted coups, and his apparent inability to deliver an engaging speech all testify to this. Ed’s comments on the Iraq war last week may have had several senior Labour figures spitting blood, but it was also a very adept speech. Ed was faced with the task of addressing a speech to a party that had been in power for 13 years, but had also managed to shed five million votes along the way. He bravely put forward his new political vision, admitting Labour’s mixed legacy but attempting to include all wings of the party as he outlined their new role as the Opposition. His carefully cultivated image as head of the “new generation of Labour” has already won over the unions and some of the public; but a Labour victory cannot just rely on the public sector. David has already stepped down, preventing any immediate split in the party; but if Labour is to be a serious contender for the next election, Ed must get to work on welcoming senior MPs back into the political fold.