Inside Story

Ed Miliband, a waiting game

After more than three years in the job, where is Britain’s Labour leader taking his party, asks David Hayes

David Hayes 18 February 2014 6242 words

Consumed with politics: UK Labour leader Ed Miliband. Fabian Society

THE HARDEST job in politics is leader of the opposition. A familiar entry in Britain’s informal lexicon of political wisdom, the maxim might have been written for Ed Miliband, who assumed the job in September 2010 by virtue of his election as leader of the Labour Party following its thumping defeat in the general election four months earlier.

The circumstances made it even more difficult for the forty-year-old. The party’s ejection from office after thirteen years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the latter’s three years dominated by financial crisis, necessitated redefinition of some kind, a process likely to prove divisive and painful. A new coalition government, whose parties had together received 59 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 29 per cent (comparable with lows in 1931 and 1983), promised to dominate the landscape. To these challenges was added a unique twist: that in the lengthy leadership campaign following the party’s election defeat, the clear favourite among the five candidates was David Miliband, Ed’s older brother.

The post-election jostling produced three other contenders, of whom the most serious was the ebullient Ed Balls, Brown’s former adviser and minister. This alone would have ensured a ding-dong contest. But it was the mind-bending sibling rivalry that allowed an otherwise routine political process to be depicted as a psychodrama with intensely personal and even mythic overtones; not least by the media, which filled its coverage with references to biblical and classical fables of familial enmity. The fact that little brother ended up conquering big made it certain that the theme would continue to dominate Ed’s efforts long after his victory. Over time, though, media speculation about their relationship and the prospect that David would serve in the shadow cabinet would diminish, especially since he departed for New York in September 2013 to head a refugee-supporting charity, the International Rescue Committee.

The David vs Ed saga also opened to a wider public the story of their parents, Ralph Miliband (born in 1924) and Marion Kozak (born in 1934). The two had found refuge in Britain as teenagers (Ralph fled Nazi-invaded Belgium in 1940, Marion communist Poland in 1947), met at the prestigious London School of Economics, and embarked on academic careers in, respectively, political sociology and child psychology. By the late 1950s they had become prominent figures on the emerging new left, collaborating from a non-aligned Marxist viewpoint with dissident communists and others in search of ground “beyond social democracy and Stalinism.” The north London home in which David (born in 1965) and Ed (born in 1969) were raised was also a political-intellectual hub where the future of Labour, of socialism, of the left was the shaping concern.

Ralph’s critique of Labour’s failings, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, published in 1961, established his reputation, which a series of theoretical works and his co-editorship of the annual Socialist Register consolidated. The father’s profile meant that when the sons embarked on a political career path in the 1990s, their patrimony was well-known among aficionados. But it barely registered in the public consciousness, and it was only in 2010, when Ed made the startling decision to take on David for the Labour leadership, that – in a way neither could have wanted nor perhaps ever imagined – their singular upbringing and now rivalrous relationship were mashed and inspected for premonitory gobbets.

(It's perhaps worth noting that with Ed's public emergence, a consideration for the media became avoiding possible confusion with his brother. Thus, where other politicians would be referred to by their surname alone, it became customary – as in this column – to use “Ed” as a sole denominator. It might be that this understandable if complaisant shorthand has worked in practice as a minor form of the indulgence that has been a pervasive feature of his life.)

IT’S HARD to overstate the shock induced in the political-media class by what turned out to be that career-defining and career-destroying moment. For others, not least bemused voters who had barely heard of Ed Miliband (and then only of his image as a “geek” or “nerd” with an adenoidal voice), it was hard to suppress the instinct that destroying his older brother was a violation of natural order. The gut affirmed what the brain denied, and the consequent tensions would endure long after the pin-drop climax at Labour’s post-election conference.

Yet Ed’s formal right to join the fray was undisputed, and there was an eminently rational case for his choice to stand. He had been a close adviser to Gordon Brown during the early New Labour period before entering parliament in 2005 and serving with credit as a minister for four years, two of them leading policy on energy and climate change. In a government of schisms and suspicions his unobtrusive amenability enabled him to maintain cordial relations with the “Blairite” as well as his own notional “Brownite” camp. He was above all an insider, responsible for writing the 2010 manifesto; yet he was also young enough to have avoided overt entanglement in the worst of New Labour’s internecine battles and responsibility for its gravest policy errors. (He would cite the Iraq war as the worst, to the delight of many in the party, and use criticism of it to differentiate himself from his brother.) Thus, fortified by a dose of amnesia with an added dash of chutzpah, he could plausibly offer himself as a fresh, untainted figure worthy of hearing as a serious candidate.

By the same logic, there was nothing amiss in testing the definite sense of entitlement that surrounded David Miliband’s prospective inheritance of the leadership. David had been a meteor: director of the new Institute of Public Policy Research (set up after Labour’s third election defeat to Margaret Thatcher) in 1989, Tony Blair’s head of policy in opposition and then in government from 1994 until his election to parliament in 2001, holder of two cabinet-level posts before his promotion to foreign minister by Gordon Brown after the latter replaced Blair in 2007. David’s career arc was thus coeval with Labour’s slow recovery from its 1980s wipeout, and this long helped him appear the party’s natural heir and figurehead of the next generation. Yet as the government’s troubles mounted after a passionless third election win in 2005 (Iraq fallout, policy stagnation, Blair–Brown fracture) the potential downsides of this close association began to be glimpsed.

If a week is a long time in politics – that same lexicon’s foremost item, minted by Labour’s would-be moderniser of the 1960s, Harold Wilson – four years is an eternity. David had been present at the creation and rise of New Labour; Ed entered the scene just as the gloss was coming off. The emergent contrasts in their political outlook owe something to that difference. The grace of a later birth, to adapt Helmut Kohl’s awkward phrase, turned out to be a crucial advantage for the younger sibling, one he was to exploit with an at first surprising ruthlessness.

Whatever ambitions Ed nurtured on the lower ministerial ladder drew little attention (though a sparkling profile of “another rising star of Labour” by the Spectator’s Mary Wakefield in May 2007 notes two salient facts: “whatever he does, he is liked” and he “has a passionate ideological belief in the beneficial role of the state”). The fact that he was to work in departments enabling close alliances with sympathetic and influential interest groups – the charity sector, then environmentalists – usefully burnished a quiet reputation as a figure attentive to “new social movements.”

Yet much would depend on the outcome of the forthcoming election. The political weather was darkening further for Labour under the permanent cloud of Gordon Brown’s premiership. The latter had found its raison d’être in crisis management following the 2007–08 crash, though damning opinion polls reinforced its sense of approaching doom. Questions about Labour’s future intensified, not least whether the party could produce a convincing “recession politics” after a decade’s oversight of a growing economy. The ensuing strains embroiled David Miliband, first in half-hearted leadership positioning then in ambiguity over a cabinet ally’s abortive effort to force a contest. These incidents were hardly propitious, though after electoral payback in 2010 and Brown’s quick departure, David entered Labour’s succession hustings still as frontrunner.

The “brothers at war” narrative dominated media coverage of a campaign that stretched from May to September across countrywide candidates’ events, TV debates on four channels, and frenetic lobbying. (Nonetheless, it was largely eclipsed by the competing soap opera, at that stage relatively benign, surrounding the new Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition.) Labour’s complicated rules, which have largely endured since a special conference in 1981, process the weighted votes of three constituencies – parliamentarians, local party members and affiliates (mainly trade unionists) – through an alternative-vote system. Each stage of the four-round ballot found David leading Ed among the first two categories and behind him in the third, but the final round gave Ed victory by 50.65 per cent to 49.35 per cent.

With the Labour Party as with Scotland’s independence referendum, the collision of contingency and destiny can be unfathomable. In the aftermath of the count, some would argue that the trade unions’ intensive canvassing – which included delivery of ballot papers and vote-for-Ed leaflets to their rank-and-file in the same envelope – “called into question” the “normative legitimacy of the electoral process.” Others echoed Frank Bongiorno’s account in Inside Story of David’s hauteur – the flickering over-the-shoulder glance towards someone more important – or else, according to potential supporters, an aroma of disdain for the essential if banal demotic niceties. In democratic politics, presumption kills passion. From this brew, in an outcome few could have foreseen even six months earlier, the Labour Party pitched itself into the unknown.

IN THE HOURS after his accession, Ed Miliband said on BBC radio that “the era of New Labour has passed” and wrote in the (Conservative) Sunday Telegraph, “My aim is to show that our party is on the side of the squeezed middle in our country and everyone who has worked hard and wants to get on. My aim is to return our party to power. This is a tough challenge. It is a long journey. But our party has made the first step in electing a leader from a new generation. It is now down to me to make the change happen. That is a challenge I relish.”

Three-and-a-half years on, a good case can be made that the Labour leader has moved closer to fulfilling the promise of these words. It has been a tough ride against great obstacles (among them a forceful coalition, a largely hostile press, and a doubtful electorate). But within sight of the May 2015 election, Miliband can claim to have established several of the ingredients of electoral success: clear command of an outwardly unified party enjoying a consistent poll lead, whose attack lines and policy announcements have latterly struck agenda-setting popular chords and wrongfooted a fractious government. Matthew d’Ancona’s intimate account of the coalition, In It Together, acknowledges that Ed has proved “a more agile and cunning opponent than had seemed likely during the leadership contest.” The fact that along the way his appearance and persona have been subject to wounding media scrutiny makes his achievement all the more impressive.

A clue to how it has been done lies in that early reference to “the squeezed middle,” the first of a series of artful Milibandian phrases intended to capture and define a new political age of reckless austerity, corporate greed, growing inequality and shrinking livelihoods. The sequence of its public reception – initial scorn, even ridicule, followed by grudging acceptance if not quite approval – in a sense mirrors Ed Miliband’s own.

The pattern was followed with “responsible capitalism” and “cost-of-living crisis,” though “one nation” (unveiled at Labour’s 2012 conference in one of Ed’s by now trademark look-mum-no-notes perorations) seems, for all the intense efforts invested in it, destined to share the fate of prime minister David Cameron’s “big society.”

Such slogans – the most recent, in a rare foray into the delicate area of state-funded health and education policy, is “people-powered public services” – reflect a wager that informed Miliband’s leadership bid and strategy from the outset: namely, that the financial crash of 2007–08 has changed the fundamentals of politics. If the crisis exposed New Labour’s timidity in face of the banking and other elites and allowed a Conservative-led coalition to impose wrongheaded spending cuts, it also revealed systemic flaws in Britain’s model of capitalism that only radical reform could begin to address. This required not just the correct policy mix, but also a wholesale rebalancing – from over-dependence on finance to the “real economy” of making things, from a self-serving to a publicly effective banking industry, from market oligopoly to consumer-friendly competition, from “predators” to “producers” – in which an active, supportive state would play a crucial role. (It is worth noting that for all the zealous polarisation of party debate, the coalition’s own declared strategy contains several similar elements, though progress has been minimal.)

The instant recipe in its various iterations helped give Miliband a semblance of ballast during his first three years. A curiosity of the period was that while near-zero growth seemed to vindicate the consistent critique of the government made by Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls, the latter were stymied by the argument – established by the coalition in the post-election weeks, while Labour was otherwise engaged – that any social pain was the belated price for Labour’s failures in office. Cameron, his chancellor George Osborne, and the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg may have been denied any political dividends from their austerity program, but they were thus able to evade the Miliband–Balls blunderbuss. The overall result was an odd stasis that sat ill with the febrile rhetoric that surrounded the economic argument.

In this context, the enthusiastic reaction to Ed Miliband’s proposal in September 2013 that a Labour government would freeze energy prices for fifteen months promised a breakthrough. The energy sector’s perceived excesses – in profits, practices and executive bonuses – had come to rival the banks’ in public demonology. From opinion poll to phone-in, the “squeezed middle” rallied to the cause. For the first time Labour’s hope and the Tories’ fear, that a Milibandian version of “left populism” might be politically viable (as opposed to the ascendant rightist version peddled by the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP), began to align for real.

For once, Ed kept up the pressure. (His lack of follow-up has been a frequent focus of criticism, along with a tendency to retreat for long periods to his tight inner circle, perhaps to commit his next big speech to memory.) The parliamentary manoeuvring that saw him force the government to abandon its plan to join in punishing Syria for a chemical-weapons attack, earned him further kudos with a war-sick public. He thus ended 2013 on a high. Yet at the same moment the political cycle was pulling another trick: the economy, so long moribund, was showing clearer signs of life – even if a bubble-like aspect made this seem to many “the wrong sort of growth.” Labour’s lead in the polls continued to vary between a few points and double figures, but a broader rise in voters’ optimism about their prospects promised welcome relief for the beleaguered Tories.

A little over a year before the election, then, Ed Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” approaches its major test with no assurances, but in a more favourable condition than most anticipated when that emotionally charged transition took place in 2010. The party’s consistent, if limited, polling lead and Britain’s anachronistic but unreformed constituency boundaries (the fallout of a coalition spat) appear sufficient to hand Labour a precious surfeit of seats; UKIP’s main threat is to the Conservatives; and the latter are less united than Labour. (“Voters dislike divided parties” is another durable entry in the political lexicon.) And Ed's ability to snatch the initiative was again on display when he used the severe floods in southern England to condemn the Tories' record on climate change; the same Telegraph acknowledged on 17 February that “Mr Miliband has a canny ability to identify people's concerns and to exploit apparent government confusion or inactivity.”

Much can happen between now and May 2015. Britain’s combustible political arena is prone to disorienting mood swings that make yesterday’s wisdom look threadbare; Scotland’s referendum, UKIP’s advance and the Conservatives’ self-destructive pathology over Europe and immigration are all nerve-ends of deeper concerns about Britain’s identity and future that the political system is struggling to express. Between this flux, the fate of the economy and everyday concerns, voters will make their own judgement on Ed Miliband and his wager.

MOST politicians become conspicuous through their exercise of or closeness to power, though a high media profile (prior or concurrent), a good scandal or a glamorous partner – or, still, simply being a woman – can be a quicker route. Ed Miliband is rare in the way that, after twenty years working at the heart of Britain’s political establishment, the public image he has acquired (which in truth remains strikingly meagre) is coloured, and inhibited, by his family background. The leadership contest of 2010 highlighted this in spectacular fashion, as Ed (already “Red Ed” the moment when head appeared above parapet) was cast as “the man who knifed his brother.”

His inability to escape this confinement, to make it an asset, or to use his standing to rise above or subvert it (by humour, say) may in part reflect a lack of the performative skills now considered a necessary part of a leader’s repertoire – of the kind, for example, David Cameron possesses and Nick Clegg also lacks. In itself this may do little harm to Ed’s chances of becoming Britain’s fourteenth prime minister since 1945. But his fate is that his provenance and its influence, as much as his record and claims on voters’ attention, will – far more than for other politicians – forever be part of his aura. The possibility of the “return” of the family issue is also, therefore, ever present.

A vivid illustration was the Daily Mail’s assault on Ed’s father Ralph Miliband in September 2013, coinciding with the end of Labour’s successful conference. An influential Marxist academic and fixture of north London’s left whose sons were to ascend seamlessly towards the New Labour summit, Ralph was always a dream target for a paper about which Francis Wheen said that every page is designed to leave the reader hating someone. “The man who hated Britain” pressed his life into classic Manichean service, with the flimsy clincher in this case a diary entry written in 1940 by the then sixteen-year-old refugee describing the English as “perhaps the most nationalist people in the world” and expressing the thought that “you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are.”

My killjoy’s instinct, the moment I saw the offending article, was that a question-mark in the headline would have detoxified the trouble to come. In the event, the wave of protest focused above all on the article’s insidious, coded play on the theme of the disloyal Jewish alien. The weekly Jewish Chronicle identified “a whiff of anti-Semitism”: “There is no direct association of Ralph Miliband’s Jewishness with his supposed hatred of Britain. But in this murky terrain there does not always need to be. Insinuation can be everything.”

Ed Miliband’s own rebuttal did not take up the charge of anti-Semitism, but said the paper’s “lurid” headline was “a lie”; in a reply published in the Mail (alongside a piece where the paper elaborated on its claims) Ed repeatedly said that Ralph “loved Britain,” described the country as “a source of hope and comfort” for him, and cited Ralph’s three years’ wartime service in the Royal Navy as proof of his patriotism.

In turn the Mail’s business editor Alex Brummer wrote an impassioned defence of its journalism; noting the parallels between his own family life and Ed Miliband’s, he characterised the “completely phoney allegations” of anti-Semitism as “a sub-plot to attacks on the paper from the Left for its coverage of Ralph Miliband’s views.”

The fury expired after ten days, the prescribed shelf-life of an A-list political–media row in Britain. Ed Miliband’s side was content to have defused an always expected barrage at a relatively safe moment in the electoral cycle. More broadly the episode further validated a story Ed’s advisers and their media allies had been pressing for three years: of an underestimated leader’s readiness to stand up to the powerful – from his brother David (in the leadership battle) and the Rupert Murdoch empire (over phone-tapping) to the energy giants and the government itself (not least over intervention in Syria).

The same narrative is even available, if requiring greater tact, for Labour’s relationship with the trade unions. Following a messy stalemate in a bitter row with the swaggering Unite union (the party’s biggest funder) about efforts to manipulate candidate selection in the Scottish constituency of Falkirk, Miliband has now secured a deal that could both limit unions’ corporate influence and revitalise the party’s membership. Unite’s own endorsement of the reform, which creates a new category of individual associate membership and redraws the rules for electing the party leader, ensures that it will be ratified at a special conference in March. Although doubts about its implementation and effects remain, the path from Ed’s initial denunciation of “machine politics” in Falkirk to a fresh settlement with Labour’s influential union backers can be portrayed as another satisfactory Ed vs Goliath bout.

THE BRANDING of the consummate insider Ed Miliband as an insurgent outsider offers clear political appeal. The Mail’s treatment provided an added opportunity to mount a wounded defence of an honourable father being posthumously traduced by an unregenerate right. Both the overall approach and the particular case, however, contain potential vulnerabilities.

After all, Ed’s career provides many examples of his calculated avoidance of any overt stance that might jeopardise his position or prospects. Frank Bongiorno’s mordant overview cites several; “Miliband,” he wrote in the wake of the “Hackgate” scandal, “hasn’t yet had to take a bold moral stand on anything. Instead, on the big issues, he has followed the line of least resistance.” When a Murdoch-owned paper was found to have recorded the conversations of celebrities and desolated crime victims, “it would have been more politically damaging for Miliband to have restrained himself than to have jumped in and joined the fun.”

Moreover, a close scrutiny of Ralph Miliband’s political ideas and their influence on his younger son – of a kind that the Mail’s approach could almost have been designed to foreclose – might cast a more complex light on Ed’s inheritance. Here, it’s notable that in all the hoo-ha about Ralph’s patriotism there was no reference to the fact that his substantial archive – containing correspondence with colleagues such as his LSE lecturer and mentor Harold Laski, a gushing travelogue from his visit to the Soviet Union in 1962, and records of his involvement in various half-forgotten political projects in the 1980s – is held at Leeds University, where he taught politics from 1972 to 1977. The latter source informs the invaluable political biography, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, by his friend Michael Newman, published in 2002, which cites his early impressions of the Yorkshire city of Leeds, then still a major industrial centre (“The town [sic] is absolutely awful – a real monument to the inhuman face of capitalism: and the atmosphere is very ‘provincial,’ which in England means really provincial”). These views, says Newman, “were never to change.”

This is the authentic Ralph: a lordly figure who found among co-thinkers of the left in London physical and political succour of a kind that for a lifetime insulated his ideas (and, it appears, his prejudices) from the complex reality of the country beyond. One of his first acts after arriving in Britain in 1940, he recalled, was visiting Karl Marx’s tomb in a deserted Highgate cemetery, “standing in front of the grave, fist clenched, and swearing my own private oath that I would be faithful to the workers’ cause.” Here was his country, here his patriotism. It can be called “internationalism” and regarded as virtuous; at the very least it deserves assessment on its own terms, and not reduced to the usual asphyxiating squabble between the Daily Mail and the Guardian into which every political argument in Britain now seems to descend.

The relative closeness of David and Ed to their mother and father is a subject now liable to subtly partisan readings by Ed’s champions, in which a prominent theme is that Ed is carrying the socialist torch abandoned by his Blairite brother. When Ralph died in 1994, having taught in his later years at several universities in the United States, Ed described his father as his “lodestar”; today, his line in response to questions about Ralph is, “I’m doing it because of him but I’m not doing it for him.” The intellectual relationship endures: the academic and Socialist Workers’ Party activist Paul Blackledge reports his surprise at seeing Ed in the audience of a debate on Ralph Miliband’s legacy organised by the journal Historical Materialism (“He told me that in his youth he enjoyed tagging along with his dad to Marxism to listen to him debate with the SWP!”).

Against this background, Ed’s speech on Englishness in June 2012 – one of several attempts to “define” himself to the public whose themes were dropped the moment the applause died – could be seen as part of an uneasy dance around his father as well as a nod to the “Blue Labour” current of his party. (The aforementioned, heavily trailed lecture on local services is another of the latter. The cheerleader John McTernan calls it “genuinely revolutionary” – “If Labour gets elected nothing will be the same again” – though it is also being followed by speculation about how long Ed’s attention will last and what the practical results will be.)

The archive contains many potential traces between father and son. Ralph’s reproof of military intervention, especially where issues of “socialist internationalism” are concerned, is one. A 1980 essay rejects the “dangerous” argument that such intervention “is defensible in some exceptional cases [of] particularly tyrannical and murderous regimes.” Cambodia was a foremost example; here, Ralph relied on Noam Chomsky’s tendentious scraps on the Khmer Rouge to question Steven Lukes’s pioneering critique (in the Times Higher Education Supplement) of Chomsky’s dissimulation. The abstraction of his approach is reflected in his concern with what is acceptable between socialist states, which he imagines “Kampuchea” under the Khmer Rouge to be. It is clear Ralph knows nothing about Cambodia and is not interested; what animates him is the need to align his stance with his Marxian schema.

There is a discernible parallel in Ed Miliband’s reputed opposition to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and to his thwarting of any British military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria after the other Ba’athist state used chemical weapons in August 2013 to massacre civilians near Damascus. Where the latter is concerned (though, as with Iraq, there were strong arguments against intervention), the nightmare in Syria itself was nowhere visible in his calculations; the dominant theme was the need to square his position with his party. In Syria, genocidal assaults have escalated since Ed’s parliamentary triumph, though beyond berating the government for not accepting refugees from the country he has not spoken a word on the subject in five months. A clear public anti-interventionist tide is in his favour, but neither over Iraq (where the evidence of his views at the time is anecdotal) nor over Syria has any sense of honour come to attach to him.

IN HIS uncompleted autobiography, Ralph Miliband struck a rare note when he said, “I have moved within a rather narrow spectrum, in some ways very narrow indeed.” The observation is even more true of his younger son, whose career is a quod erat demonstrandum of the high metropolitan left’s provinciality.

The copious evidence, though far from presented as such, is in the immensely detailed biography by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre, Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader, whose second edition takes the story up to late 2012. A work of hagiographical instinct tempered by journalistic scruple, the authors (hereafter H&M) attempt heroically to pump drama into a trajectory circumscribed even by the standards of the modern political class – from the Primrose Hill debating chamber (where he still lives), to Oxford (same course and same college as David, though a lesser degree – is this relevant?), work placements, MP’s researcher, Treasury policy adviser, Harvard, Treasury again, MP, minister, party leader. The last chapter is called, what else, “Prime Minister Ed Miliband?” The shortness of the circuits around which Ed has made his way, and the dense networks of patronage, privilege and promotion that facilitated his path, are broadly familiar to the outside observer; yet both delve in and stand back, and the tale can still disconcert.

A single example comes from 2005. A general election is imminent. The thirty-five-year-old Ed’s hunt for a constituency takes him to Doncaster, a bruised post-industrial town east of Leeds (with, though this is neglected in the book, a shocking recent record in local government). He faces a strong local rival for the Labour candidacy – and, this being Doncaster North, for a job for life as the local MP. A key figure in the campaign is Ed’s patron, the chancellor (and prime-minister-in-waiting) Gordon Brown:

Brown, at the same time, went into classic fixer mode for Ed. He contacted Rodney Bickerstaffe, the ex-UNISON general secretary who is from Doncaster. A senior party source says that “Rodney was able to deliver for Gordon and Ed Miliband the sort of UNISON and local councillor set… [In] most wards it would be the councillors, the councillors’ kids and those seeking reselection for the council nomination. They were basically the activists of the CLP [Constituency Labour Party].” Bickerstaffe contacted Chris Taylor, an activist for UNISON, which would later back Ed Miliband for the leadership. Between them, Taylor and Brown made sure Ed gained steady support for the party councillor set. Chris Taylor’s organisational help was critical and Ed would go on to employ him to run his constituency office.

This is the way the Labour Party works. (In 2001, David Miliband had been parachuted into the safe constituency of South Shields, a hundred miles to the north, with Tony Blair’s blessing.) Nothing surprising in it, though, as Joseph Conrad wrote in another context, it is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. Thus was the deal clinched, topped by a barnstorming speech at the decisive meeting where (H&M write) Ed name-checked several councillors’ children and grandchildren.

The Doncaster process was a brute exercise of pressure without evident breach of rules, whereas the Falkirk affair involved coordinated deception in the effort to secure a nomination. Still, Ed’s denunciation in the latter case of “a politics closed, of the machine, a politics hated and rightly so,” raised no echoes. H&M recount the saga in an admirably thorough if also Ed-friendly fashion, as they do many other instances in Miliband’s charmed ascent.

Here too, there are traces of Ralph. It was Harold Laski, the generous LSE teacher and Labour Party networker, who (via the wartime navy minister) facilitated Ralph’s path to his preferred service, and who later interceded with the home affairs minister James Chuter Ede (“as one socialist to another”) to resolve his father Samuel’s contentious naturalisation claim. The motto of this very political family might be “friends in high places.”

POLITICS is a noble trade, its more romantic practitioners affirm. To make the claim real it must palpably draw on life and in turn be a route to life. For Ed Miliband, to an unusual degree even among career politicians, politics excludes life (though he supports the Boston Red Sox baseball team). H&M write that Ed “is consumed with politics – the process, the personalities, the ideologies. He has little time for anything else – even in his private life… On his evenings and weekends, he continues to pore over newspaper columns and political blogs…” That Ed has little “hinterland” (a lexicon entry owed to the Labour veteran Denis Healey) was confirmed by a deadening choice of music on BBC radio’s hallowed Desert Island Discs, where light pop mixed with dutiful “movement” songs.

He is also without cultural pretension in the matter, which counts as refreshing. Moreover, his freedom from imagination is accompanied by a passionate interest in ideas (as long as they are political ones). A colleague recalls meeting him on the fringes of a catatonic conference in Sweden about the future of social democracy, and Ed’s eager “Isn’t this great!” This must be credited as his unique selling point, for it informs his core proposition that Britain’s capitalist model needs major renovation. The interest, though, can come over as instrumental and ungrounded, something reflected in the regular spasms of media excitement about the latest buzzwords or wheezes emanating from his circle of long-term collaborators, prominent among them Stewart Wood and Marc Stears, former and current Oxford academics. If it’s February it must be Theodore Roosevelt; blink and you missed Roberto Unger. After almost four years of a five-year parliament, the start-up is still in the garage.

A desperately cheerful profile of “Project Miliband” in the centre-left Observer on 2 February is a glimpse into the chaos. “The gurus, the journals, the aides, the thinktanks and charities, the key books, the rising parliamentary stars” – the house of cards is ransacked as the newspaper looks forward to the results of Labour’s long-awaited policy review. It concludes with what may be the single most depressing sentence published in a British newspaper since the 2010 election: “‘We are awash with gurus and books and new thinking,’ says a member of the inner circle.”

Two weeks on, BBC radio’s Week in Westminster is discussing “Ed Miliband’s big new idea.” It is all reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s response when asked how he kept track of his ideas: “I don’t have many ideas, perhaps one or two in a lifetime.” The Labour Party badly needs fewer ideas.

There is very little sign that Ed Miliband, political obsessive and academic manqué, is politician enough to develop the portfolio of skills that a winning democratic leader now seems to require. Though he does have much else going for him, from electoral geography and a solid heartland vote to inept ruling parties and a split on the right. Plus another vital ingredient, identified by Napoleon when he asked of a potential general: is he lucky? Whatever else he has or lacks, Ed Miliband most certainly is that. •