Tweedlegeek vs. Tweedledork
The Miliband brothers battle for the mantle of a new New Labour.
LONDON — At first, the British Labour Party’s quest for a new leader seemed simple. David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, was the prohibitive, presumptive favorite. Like Hillary Clinton, he presented himself as the inevitable victor; like her he soon discovered that being the establishment candidate couldn’t guarantee anything.
Unlike Clinton, however, Miliband faced a challenge from close to home: from his own younger brother, Ed. As the lengthy leadership campaign ground on — the candidates appeared at dozens of hustings over the summer, none any more revealing than the last — Ed Miliband, previously the environment secretary, presented himself as the candidate of “change.” If David was Hillary, Ed definitely wanted to be Barack. And so, the campaign leading up to Sept. 25’s party leadership vote has combined the heated competition of the 2008 U.S. Democratic primary with the tensions of a sibling rivalry.
But the contest is not just a drama about the brothers Miliband or even about the future of the Labour Party. The past needs to be reckoned with, too. Since falling from power, Labour has been consumed with the process of coming to terms with the legacy of the dual monarchy of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown years. The leadership campaign has been no exception. David headed Blair’s Policy Unit in the late 1990s while Ed was a speechwriter and aide to Brown before entering Parliament in 2005, four years after his elder brother. Unsurprisingly, the campaign has been viewed as the latest, most intimate chapter yet in the Blair-Brown soap opera.
Both candidates have obliged the party faithful by playing the adversarial roles expected of them, but neither has been particularly convincing. Ed castigates the New Labour luminaries who have endorsed his brother — but it’s hard to be a convincing “change candidate” when you wrote the Labour platform that was rejected by the electorate just four months ago. And while David sometimes speaks of a “Next Labour” that could target the middle classes, its outline is hard to discern. Both Milibands say it is time to “move on,” yet neither has proved capable of articulating a fresh vision. Perhaps this is not surprising: After 13 years in government, it’s too much to expect that Labour can retool itself for opposition in just four months.
In fact, the leadership race has shown that the old divisions were often as much a matter of style as substance. “New Labour” was a joint Blair-Brown project to reinvent the Labour Party for a post-Thatcherite age. New Labour, even if few still use the term, has been absorbed into the party’s DNA, and into the Milibands’.
One need only compare the brothers’ views with those of their father Ralph, a Belgian-born Polish-Jewish émigré who arrived in London in 1940, to judge how far Labour has come. A Marxist lecturer at the London School of Economics, Ralph Miliband became a considerable and influential figure on the intellectual left, and much of his career was spent battling reformists within the Labour Party. By the 1970s Ralph, who died in 1994, was lamenting that Labour was now only “a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted.”
Neither David nor Ed would venture such an anti-capitalist critique today; both have the political inclinations and the personal mannerisms of the plummy intellectual milieu in which they were raised. (Neither has ever had a real nonpolitical job.) Ed’s supporters like to boast that unlike his brother he can “speak fluent human.” This, it must be said, is true only in a relative, not an absolute sense. Neither brother is a natural communicator or retail politician — an unkind observer might label the contest as one between Tweedlegeek and Tweedledork — and both sometimes seem more comfortable with abstract nouns than people.
It is convenient for journalists that David’s heroes within the Labour movement have tended to be its reformers, while Ed’s childhood hero was the left-wing firebrand Tony Benn, whose efforts did much to secure the Thatcherite supremacy of the 1980s. Convenient too that David is associated with the Blairite wing of the party’s modern civil war while Ed is in the Brownite camp. David emphasizes reaching out to middle-class voters in the south of England who abandoned Labour while Ed prefers to concentrate on regaining the trust of poor and socially disadvantaged voters who have chosen to stay at home in recent elections. Fundamentally, however, the differences between the two have been exaggerated. Until recently both would have easily been identified as being on the pragmatic wing of the party — as were their mentors Blair and Brown. Despite their many personal differences, the two ex-prime ministers have more in common than the dueling memoirs of their Downing Street tenancies would lead one to believe.
Whichever Milibrother wins, he will need to construct a credible alternative to Prime Minister David Cameron’s economic and fiscal policies. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government is preparing Britain for a period of retrenchment and austerity. Cameron has vowed to eliminate Britain’s budget deficit by 2015 and appears to have convinced the public that painful spending cuts are necessary. Labour must present and sell a different path, insisting that there is a real alternative to government policy. Labour can mount a strong opposition solely on the basis of sticking up for public-sector unions, but that won’t be a credible platform for government.
So who will win? Polling has offered few clues. The nature of the voting process for the Labour leadership — Labour MPs, party members, and members of Labour-affiliated labor unions form three constituencies, each with a one-third share of the electoral college — is such that predictions are dangerous. David is generally thought likely to win among MPs, while Ed’s campaign has enjoyed momentum with party members and the backing of major labor unions. (Labour MPs at Westminster remember that both Blair and Cameron won by taking the center ground. That suggests the race is still David’s to lose.)
Curiously, the Labour base, in reckoning with its recent past, seems to prefer the party’s failures over its successes. Blair might have won three thumping election victories, but he has been written out of Labour history — his reputation permanently ruined by his alliance with George W. Bush and the decision to invade Iraq. Brown may have proved an uncommonly disastrous prime minister, leaving office with Britain facing its worst fiscal crisis since the 1970s, but as far as Labour is concerned, he never betrayed the party and so remains in good standing. David now finds it difficult to muster enthusiasm because of his association with Blair, while Ed’s closer relationship with Brown carries no such stigma.
Ed has fired up the true believers who, depressed by defeat, are nostalgic for more ideological days. But that doesn’t mean that even his supporters think he really can or should lead as a firebrand. Even committed Labour voters know that the old left-wing religion won’t win elections anymore. According to one poll, 30 percent of Labour members who are supporting Ed actually think David is “most likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election.”
That’s why Tories are secretly hoping for a come-from-behind victory for Ed. Cameron’s Downing Street is hardly terrified of the elder Miliband, but they see in David’s more statesmanlike campaign a potential path to electoral success. One New Labour tenet, it seems, has also been taken to heart by the Conservatives — namely, that substance must be married with style.
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
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