Philip Collins

Ed Miliband may win the Labour leadership, but he will never take the country

Philip Collins reviews the week in politics

Text settings

Philip Collins reviews the week in politics

Other people’s families are always strange. How much stranger when the idea of a political fight within a family is no longer a metaphor. Ed Miliband recently told of his parents’ journey to England and his gratitude for their refuge here. This dramatic and effective story could have been a moment of emotional differentiation if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that the other serious candidate has the same parents.

The battle for the Labour leadership remains a curious contest which has provoked no curiosity. The public was asked this week which of the candidates would make the best prime minister: 64 per cent said either none of the above or that they didn’t know. Yet this week the pace, if not quite the pulse, quickened. Lord Mandelson’s unconvincing lapse into silence ended with the accusation that Ed Miliband would lead Labour into an electoral cul-de-sac. Lord Kinnock, who never won so much as a raffle, then writes to the Times to tell Lord Mandelson to shut up.

In the postscript to his memoirs, Tony Blair delivers a damning verdict on Labour’s love affair with state action. Columnists wonder out loud, strangers to irony, what Tony Blair has to teach anyone about victory. The Ed Miliband campaign team define themselves against what they call the ‘New Labour playbook’, which now has its biblical script in A Journey. They then respond to accusations that they are playing to the Labour gallery by inventing a new category — the New Labour comfort zone. It is hard to know what is in the New Labour comfort zone. The Iraq war? Tuition fees? Ninety days detention? They may have been right or they may have been wrong but it is hard to recall any of these events as comfortable.

Yes, it is very peculiar, but perhaps the most curious aspect of all is how close it is going to be. Reliable figures are hard to come by yet the available polls, and the testimony of both camps, suggest a tight race between the brothers Miliband.

On the face of it, David Miliband ought to win. He is a former environment and foreign secretary who has, twice before, been touted as an alternative Labour leader to Gordon Brown. He was considered distinguished enough to be invited to Brussels to be the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, a job he might soon wish he had taken. It would be pushing it to say that he has a Blair-like ability to connect with non-Labour Britain but he does, at least, want to try. Peter Mandelson tells the crushing story about Roy Hattersley actually not wanting Tories to vote Labour and there is more than a whiff of this attitude in the Ed Miliband campaign which, no surprise here, Hattersley supports.

It is always a good idea to imagine who would win if your opponents were picking your winner. A special conference of the Labour party would have selected Iain Duncan Smith. That would have disclosed the imminent catastrophe to the Conservative party. Anyone intent on burying the Labour party would choose Diane Abbott, clearly, with Ed Balls not far behind and Andy Burnham just after that. Beyond that, senior Conservatives have been known to let slip that they expect David Miliband to win but they are rooting for Ed. This is both right and wrong. It is right because David is the better candidate, but wrong because a victory for Ed is a serious possibility.

So, what is the attraction of the younger Miliband? What is it about him that the Labour party likes, to an extent which mystifies his opponents? Quite a lot of it is not really about Ed Miliband at all. It is about what sort of Labour party they feel happy with.

The Ed Miliband part of the equation is all true, as far as it goes. The younger Miliband is a nice man (so is his brother, actually). He is good on a platform and he is a fluent advocate of the Labour case. He made a success of his biggest job yet in government, at environment, and he had a good conference at Copenhagen when the proceedings were collapsing all around him.

All of that is true and yet not really the point. Take a look at the disciples of Ed Miliband. It is always useful to locate, in any political party, the figure who is usefully wrong. Lembit Opik, for example, became useful by default because he kept backing the wrong leader. The key to being usefully wrong is reliability. It is no good being randomly wrong and then occasionally right, like a stopped clock. Being usefully wrong requires intelligence and thought. It demands a thorough analysis (which is often good), a careful weighing of options, a conclusion which is close to credible (but not quite) and a plan for action which is on the very verge of being popular. You can see the assembled Lembit Opiks of the Labour party among the published parliamentary supporters of Ed Miliband.

And what they think they have spotted is that Ed Miliband is their patron saint. They think he releases them from uncomfortable struggles against the public sector. They think they will not be forced to confront the deficit question. They imagine they can carry on in the comforting illusion that state spending is a straight line to progress. They can be content that their long-held desire to do something about the banks will finally come good. What, they don’t know. Just something. And when they are met with the fear that Ed can never be prime minister because he is too left-wing they retreat to the mystical utterance that the terminology of left and right is now meaningless. It is as if the country inexplicably voted Conservative while secretly agreeing with Ed Miliband all along.

This is the attraction. The Labour party can be Labour again after the brief Blairite coup and the Brown interregnum. This is certainly what Ed Miliband’s supporters think they are getting. There is one remaining question: are they? And there may be good news for the senior Tories who are on his side. Mr Miliband is not cynical. The accusation that he is pandering to the Labour party is unfair. He is straight: what he says is what he thinks. There is nothing absurd in most of it and some of it is right. It is, indeed, on the very verge of popularity. But it will not be enough. And that is why there is every chance that the Labour party will soon become a family with the wrong member in control.

Philip Collins is a columnist on the Times, and former speechwriter for Tony Blair.