Inside Story

The brothers grim

Despite defeating his brother in a long and hard-fought leadership campaign, it’s still not clear what British Labour leader Ed Miliband stands for, writes Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno 10 August 2011 2123 words

FOR ED MILIBAND, it’s been a pretty good war – two good wars, in fact. During his quest for the British Labour leadership, in which his only serious rival was older brother David, he claimed to have opposed the Iraq war. This seems to have helped his bid, although it’s easy to see why it infuriated his opponents. No one could point to any public statement in which Ed criticised the Blair government’s decision to partner George W. Bush and the United States in an aggressive and possibly illegal war.

Ed was at Harvard during 2003 and not yet an MP, but he was a rising star in Gordon Brown’s circus. There was nothing to prevent him from publicly condemning the decision, rather than confining his criticism to private conversations with friends and colleagues. Dissent would have attracted media attention, and might even have caused his political master and mentor, Brown, to linger a while longer over the issue. As it was, Brown took a transatlantic call from the younger Miliband brother, in which Ed urged giving the United Nations more time to search for weapons of mass destruction. And if the political journalists Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre are correct in their new book Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader, the first biography of the British opposition leader, then Brown took Ed’s objections seriously before opportunistically throwing in his lot with Blair.

The other war that has been kind to Ed Miliband is the one being prosecuted against Rupert Murdoch by Britain’s political class and a section of its media. The most dramatic events in this conflict occurred shortly after the appearance of Hasan and Macintyre’s book. At the time of publication, it was still apparently the position of Miliband’s office that Labour should not seek to link the issue of phone-hacking to Murdoch’s multibillion-pound bid to buy the remainder of BSkyB. We know this because of a leaked email sent to Labour frontbenchers on behalf of Tom Baldwin, Ed’s director of communications and a former employee of the Murdoch-owned Times. “Whether or not Ed has the courage to refuse to bow to the pressures all Labour leaders encounter from the Murdoch-owned media that tries to drag them to the right, remains to be seen,” comment Hasan and Macintyre. But Ed was there, along with David Cameron, amid the thunder and lightning at News International’s summer party.

In the end, Ed was not required to show any real courage over Murdoch. The running was made by Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant. When Ed did eventually jump on the bandwagon, he earned much media praise, as if he had shown a singular political courage. He had done nothing of the sort. In the febrile atmosphere that surrounded the phone-hacking issue by July, it would have been more politically damaging for Miliband to have restrained himself than to have jumped in and joined the fun.

It’s perhaps unfair to say as much, and to blame a party leader for being cautious in his dealings with the Murdoch press. And it might be equally unfair to censure a young man wanting a political career for failing to articulate publicly his private objections to the Iraq war. To have broken with the party line over Iraq at a time when Ed was not yet even in parliament would have been hard work. But there’s a pattern here, one that extends to a range of other issues that Miliband has had to confront. He 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.

To Iraq and Murdoch can be added the introduction of ninety-day detention without charge for suspected terrorists in 2005. In private, he told Brown that it was “madness.” But he was not to be found among the forty-nine Labour MPs who helped to defeat the bill. As Hasan and Macintyre comment, it “was not Ed’s finest hour.” No it wasn’t; but their comment implies that there were many, other finer hours beside which Ed’s failure on this occasion needs to be set and judged. It is hard to find them. The assessment of another political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, seems apposite: men and women like David Cameron and Ed Miliband who have spent almost all of their adult lives in politics – and that’s most of them these days – are “a cautious, calibrating breed.”

It was, no doubt, an act of calibration that also prompted Ed to keep mum over the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006. Blair refused to call for a ceasefire and Ed was “really pissed off”; but not apparently “pissed off” enough to risk his advancement with a show of disagreement. And when Tom Watson circulated a letter calling for Blair to go, Ed refused to sign. While he wanted his patron, Brown, to have the top job, he would not – to quote Sartre – plunge his hands “dans la merde et dans le sang.”

Where Ed has shown ruthlessness, it has been mainly over internal party matters or occasional policy issues. He worked hard to get rid of Damian McBride, a shadowy practitioner of the dark political arts in Brown’s office, whose appalling conduct caused his own demise. And Hasan and Macintyre also reveal that, as energy and climate change secretary, Ed stood his ground in demanding environmental concessions in the proposal to build a third runway at Heathrow. Brown was apparently “livid” about Ed’s demands, calling it “total betrayal.”

BUT THE most obvious instance of Ed’s ruthlessness was his decision to run against his own brother for the Labour leadership. Curiously, in Hasan and Macintyre’s telling, this episode is the one where Ed does reveal something like political courage. Yet it has clearly produced much bad blood between the brothers and has taken on the appearance of a family tragedy, with David and Ed said to be barely on speaking terms. And the critics have sometimes been harsh. Jon Cruddas, the no-nonsense Labour MP for Dagenham, simply couldn’t understand how Ed could run against his own brother. “Why don’t you fucking punch him?” he asked David. “That’s what I’d do.”

David didn’t, but Hasan and Macintyre show that he really has only himself to blame for his somewhat unexpected defeat. Only somewhat expected, I should stress; I spoke to a member of the Ed team a few days before the result of the leadership ballot was announced, and he was quietly confident that Ed had won. By that stage, at the very least he seemed in with a good chance after an impressive showing in the leadership election campaign, which involved more than fifty hustings meetings all over the country. (Party rank-and-file and members of affiliated unions have the right to vote in contests for the party leadership.) Earlier, David had been strong favourite. He looked and sounded prime ministerial; he raised the most money for his campaign; and he had behind him a successful senior cabinet career, culminating in a period as foreign secretary. But along with his gifts, David Miliband has some serious flaws in addition to the perception – perhaps somewhat unfair, for he is to the left of most Blairites – that he represents the continuation of New Labour.

One candidate for the leadership told Hasan and Macintyre that David mishandled the hustings meetings by appearing “irritated that he was having to stand there listening to the rest of us and the members of the audience.” This accords very precisely with my recollection of the hustings meeting I attended in Manchester; David looked bored, especially when he wasn’t talking, and he failed to connect with the audience. This is bad enough, but others have similar stories to tell. “David has always had a problem of looking over your shoulder for the next, more important person to talk to,” said a shadow cabinet minister. Other Labour insiders have commented that David is notoriously rude, even to people whose support he needs – like Labour MPs. (These stories have a ring of truth about them. As it happens, I witnessed identical behaviour from the same culprit at an official function in London. Along with much of Westminster, it seems, I can proudly boast the honour of having had David Miliband look over my shoulder. Happily, Geoffrey Robertson QC was lurking nearby, and David was off like a shot, in a flamboyant display of bad manners.)

By contrast, Ed Miliband has impressed with his “emotional intelligence” and interpersonal skills. Hasan and Macintyre relate this to the most unusual family background of these two brothers: David takes after a somewhat “princely” father, Ed after his more “down-to-earth” and “emotional” mother. David and Ed are the sons of one of Britain’s most famous Marxist scholars, Ralph Miliband, best known for his Parliamentary Socialism (1961). A rather obvious joke has done the rounds for some years: the father argued that socialism was impossible under a parliamentary system and the sons have devoted their careers to proving him right.

Ralph was a Jewish refugee from Belgium, who was lucky to escape to Britain in 1940. Ed and David’s mother, Marion, a Polish Jew, hid from the Nazis in a convent and was later sheltered by a Catholic family, arriving in Britain soon after the war. The Miliband boys grew up in a radical, cultured, intellectual and political household in Primrose Hill – apparently not quite as expensive or fashionable then as it is now. Regular visitors to this lively home included Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Tariq Ali and Tony Benn.

The family has been described as “extremely close” but the Milibands were also peripatetic. After teaching at the London School of Economics, Ralph took up a job at Leeds University; the family only joined him there when he suffered a heart attack. Later, he worked in the United States. Initially, the family accompanied him, but Ralph remained behind while Marion and the boys returned to Britain. Later, Ed lived with his father in America for a while. Ralph, however, was absent for nine months of each year while Ed was a teenager. This may well explain why he was “closer to his mother than his late father.”

The quarrel that has apparently developed between the Miliband brothers has sometimes overshadowed a generally solid performance by Ed during his first year as leader. He has had his problems, and was weakened at the outset by the (accurate) perception that if not for the votes of trade unionists, David would have won the leadership. The conservative press dubbed him “Red Ed.” And, most recently, the apparent implosion of Blue Labour – a party grouping that appeared to have Ed’s ear – after some ill-judged remarks calling for a freeze on immigration from its leading spokesman, Lord Glasman, has undermined his sense of ideological coherence. Most commentators agree that whatever you thought of Blue Labour’s “radical conservatism” it was the most intellectually lively corner of the post-2010 defeated party. Ed saw value in its stress on the building of a common life in local communities and will somehow need to salvage what is valuable and worthwhile from the current wreckage. Yet he will also need to deal with the very issue that Glasman raised: immigration. The latter’s remarks might have been unhelpful to Labour but they also served to dramatise a difficult issue that the party is still to come to terms with.

Hasan and Macintyre’s biography is sympathetic to Ed, yet contains plenty of material that will be grist to the mill for doubters. Like much of Britain’s political elite, Ed is white, male, in his forties and Oxbridge educated. Unlike them, he is Jewish, state-school educated and the product of a most unusual upbringing. He seems, in his person, almost to exemplify Blairite triangulation. But as Ed himself seems to realise, identifying left, right and centre these days is not quite as straightforward as in New Labour’s heyday.

In the end, he might actually need to take a stand. •