David Cameron has dismissed the Labour leadership election as a "Star Trek convention" with policy wonks battling out to go where no spad has gone before. That caricature has some currency (see picture, left). But as he'll know, a deeper choice faces Labour. David Miliband may be the geekier one - playing Spock to Ed's Kirk. You can argue that Ed speaks better human, that he's more plain-speaking. But when he does speak, it's worth listening to what he has to say. And his piece in the Observer makes clear why so many Tories want him to win.
He says he will "make capitalism work for the people" - who has it been working for so far? The government? He proposes to ration corporation tax cuts for companies if they up the minimum wage to £7.60 an hour: an offer some companies would take, if it means more profit. But they'd do that by hiring fewer people. Such a move would render unemployed those people whose skills are worth less than £7.60 an hour. Funny how in the Labour years, so much attention was put on the rate of the minimum wage while no one seemed to care about the youth unemployment which surged even in the middle of a boom.
Ed Miliband proposes a "high pay commission" which implies some kind of maximum wage. I wonder how wealth and job creators, so many of them immigrants, will react to that? Especially now that Britain now has the 4th highest income tax in the world. You can imagine how all of these positions warm the hearts of the 3.5m union members and 165,000 remaining Labour supporters who will have two-thirds of the votes. But the 271 Labour MPs and MEPs will have a bad feeling about this. Some will be old enough to remember the leadership of Michael Foot, a principled and committed socialist, who pleased Labour's core vote but had a different effect on swing voters.
Assuming (as the bookmakers do) that this is a two geek race then which is better for Labour? David Miliband is distinguishing himself by what he hasn't said. He doesn't pretend to have been against the Iraq war (as Ed now does, to sniggers from all the Labour MPs who can't quite remember him saying so at the time). David Miliband has supported the Blair reform agenda, and is the only candidate to have backed Darling's position on the need for cuts. Ed Balls has also been telling the party what it doesn't want to hear in focusing on immigration - and quite right too. Balls is wrong on so many economic issues that it's hard to keep count (his 'advice' led to the credit bubble and consequent crash). But look at the way candidates are behaving. Ed Miliband is telling them what he thinks they want to hear. David Miliband is avoiding the bandwagon.
Now, I'm not going to heap praise on David Miliband. He bottled it over Brown and his most memorable moment as foreign secretary involved pulling out a banana, and his speaking style has a unfortunate soporific effect. But this leadership election is coming down to which path Labour wants to take: a lurch to the left and towards the comfort zone of its remaining members? Or the harder path, which tries to keep more in tune with the mood of an electorate by no means in love with David Cameron? Labour is within striking distance: historically, it would be odd for an opposition with so many seats not to win the next election. But perhaps this hunger for power has been supplanted by a longing for a spot of self-indulgent bash-the-rich stuff. I gather that David Cameron thinks Ed Miliband would be better at opposition - ie, it's easier to denounce cuts at PMQs if your position is one of deficit denial and a desire to jack up the national debt even faster than Brown intended to. But he thinks David Miliband would be better at winning elections, insofar as his leadership victory would suggest Labour is taking a more moderate path and has retained its hunger for power. But there are no heroes in this battle. It's a beauty contest without any beauties.
Now, I'm in Edinburgh today, so let me go a little Scottish here. Labour's problem is simple. As Scott says in Heart of Midlothian: the hour has cometh, but not the man. This leadership contest isn't a question of personality (just as well) but of direction. And to paraphrase Runrig, will Labour take the high road, keep itself together and prepare for power next time? Or does it have altitude sickness after all these years trying to be electable, and feel like a jaunt in the low road with the unions? We have only a few more weeks left of this to find out.