The body language between Ed and David Miliband is very telling. David, narrowly defeated in the Labour leadership election, looks like a man who’s had a burden removed from his shoulders. Ed, on the other hand, seems to be as jittery as a fish on a hook. I’m sure things will calm down as the victorious brother gets into his stride and grows in confidence.
It’s important to realise that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Ed or his politics. I went along to a London hustings meeting in the summer and he was clearly the next best option after David. He’s a personable, competent politician and of course nothing like the dangerous Marxist he’s painted by the hysterical press pack. If Ed replaced David Cameron and managed to see off the Tory Prime Minister’s Liberal lapdog, Nick Clegg, I would be the first to cheer. I just have my doubts that it’s ever going to happen.
The long-running Blair v Brown saga is often presented as a tragic clash of personalities. Actually, it was about differences in policy and emphasis. Blair was always more laissez-faire in his approach to the economy than Brown and more pro-European. He also understood the British public better than his long-standing rival and intuitively grasped voters’ attitudes to key issues such as taxation. Blair, in fact, had a superb political instinct. He won three general elections and then quit just as something rather nasty was about to hit the fan. Brown was always vain enough to believe he’d make a great Prime Minister but always too indecisive to stick the knife into Blair’s back. The net result was that he took over at the worst of all possible times and made a pig’s ear of his period in Downing Street.
History will conclude that Brown was a decent enough man and clearly very bright, but lacked political judgement. Blair, on the other hand, will be remembered as a charmer and a sweet-talker. Many people imagined him to be insincere and superficial. But he managed to get important things right, time and time again.
Ed Miliband supported Brown. David Miliband was closely associated with Blair. This tells me all I need to know about the judgement and politics of the two brothers who contested the leadership and it gives me a powerful clue as to the likely direction that Ed will take the Labour Party. He is not someone who is going to rock the boat too much or do anything very radical. I doubt he is even going to make as many strides for Labour as one of his most vocal supporters, Neil Kinnock. For all his faults, Kinnock had the guts and determination to stand up to extremism in the 1980s Labour Party and helped pave the way for New Labour. I’m not really sure that Ed will pave the way to anything very fundamental. He is a ‘steady as she goes’ leader in the image of John Smith who briefly led the party between Kinnock and Blair.
Universal benefits? According to Ed’s interview on the Andrew Marr show, they’re not up for grabs, even though most ordinary voters think it crazy that rich people receive child benefit or help with their heating in old age. Reform of the Labour electoral college which allowed Ed’s union backers to bring him victory? It’s not going to happen. And on the defining issue of the deficit and how Labour positions itself in relation to the ConDem cuts programme, I have a strong suspicion that Ed will try to be all things to all people. He says that he won’t oppose every cut, but he seems to want to distance himself from Alistair Darling’s formulation that the debt must be cut in half within four years.
It’s Labour’s approach to the cuts that will determine whether it’s seen as a credible party of government again. The centre-left is absolutely right to say that Cameron and Clegg are pushing forward too far and too fast with a retrenchment in public services, which will have severe social consequences and a potentially disastrous economic impact too at a time of fragile recovery. It is simply not plausible, however, for the new Labour leader and his backers to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that we can ignore the deficit. People didn’t vote for a right-wing government because they felt that Labour wasn’t left-wing enough. They will only trust Labour in its criticism of the ConDems if they feel there’s a coherent alternative plan for getting the UK out of its undoubted economic mess.
I’m prepared to give Ed the benefit of the doubt. He may yet prove me wrong and I’ll be delighted if he does. But a Labour victory at the next general election will not be built out of the conservatism and reticence that dominated Gordon Brown’s term in office. It will be cultivated by the bravery and difficult decision-making associated with Tony Blair.