A welcome promised in Hastings for disgruntled Lib Dem voters

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Indy Politics

Ed Miliband has much more than winning the Labour leadership in his sights. He is convinced he can complete the first realignment in British politics since the Social Democratic Party of David Owen and Roy Jenkins left Labour in 1981.

"There is a progressive majority in this country; we did not secure enough of it at this year's election," he told The Independent. "I am uniquely well placed to heal the split there was in 1981 with the SDP, and win back people from the Liberal Democrats to Labour.

"We have seen half of a realignment of politics, with what Cameron has done with Clegg. The other half can happen with me as Labour leader, because I think I can offer a home to former Liberal Democrats and bring together a social democratic economic policy, redistribution, greater equality and putting individual liberty at the centre of who we are."

Why is he so well qualified? Because he shares the Liberal Democrats' agenda on civil liberties, ID cards, the detention of terrorist suspects without charge and university tuition fees, he replies. "The Liberal Democrats are on a journey. Clegg is taking them in a direction a lot of Lib Dem supporters are deeply dismayed about," he said.

"I offer a home for Liberal Democrat voters in which they don't have to trade abolition of ID cards for a reactionary assault on the welfare state, and they can be true to their values on both civil liberties and economic policy."

We are speaking as he spends three hours on trains from London to Hastings and back, so that he can address 150 of Labour's 400 local members for just 75 minutes. It is typical of the gruelling, 24/7 schedules as the five candidates to succeed Gordon Brown criss-cross the country. They have spoken together at 50 hustings meetings and there are six more to come before the result is announced on 25 September. It is possible, Ed Miliband's team calculates, that he could speak to about half the party's 160,000 members during the campaign.

In Hastings, he gets a warm welcome in a sweaty, overcrowded seafront hotel room, with standing room only. He also gets some ammunition for his leadership fight with his elder brother David and his hopes of building that "progressive alliance". He is told that the Liberal Democrats have virtually collapsed locally since the Coalition Government was formed, and that Labour, which lost Hastings and Rye to the Tories in May, would win it today with just some of the 7,825 people who voted Liberal Democrat.

Moreover, Labour lost the seat because only 50 per cent of voters turned out in local council estates, compared to 80 per cent in more affluent parts of the constituency. "It wasn't just in Hastings," Mr Miliband tells his audience. "It was actually the least affluent voters we lost, not the more affluent voters."

Ed Miliband shows he can "do human", taking questions for an hour and making sure he always mentions the questioner by their first name. There are some Blair-like hand signals, but they are less pronounced than those of his brother.

The questions are more left-wing than he usually gets; there are demands for the nationalisation of key industries and a reversal of Margaret Thatcher's trade union reforms. He does not endorse these demands but does say: "I am not embarrassed about saying I am a socialist." Afterwards, it is clear that his long journey has been productive. Two candidates are popular among Labour members in Hastings and Rye – Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham. The good news for Mr Miliband is that many of those who will vote for the shadow Health Secretary will make him their second preference.

Since Mr Burnham is highly unlikely to win, his votes should transfer to Mr Miliband. Second preferences could prove crucial and there is optimism among Ed Miliband's supporters that he is well placed because of this voting system. Interviewed on his train, he rejects claims by his brother's allies that his campaign has tacked to the left in a calculated attempt to hoover up these second preference votes.

"It is tailored to what I think," he insisted. Returning the fire from his brother's camp, he adds: "I am not going to let myself be caricatured by people into something I am not. They have to start to explain what is 'Bennite' or 'Footite' about what I am saying. I don't understand it. I am afraid it is part of the New Labour comfort zone. If you don't like what your opponents are saying, you claim they are Tony Benn or Michael Foot reincarnated. Frankly, political debate has to get a bit better than that." He admitted there were "honest disagreements" with his brother over Labour's strategy, with him putting more emphasis on winning back the party's natural supporters. But he denied it was a "core vote" strategy, saying: "I think we should ban the phrase 'core vote'. They did not vote for us. The core vote is a swing vote."

Ed Miliband played down the suspicion that the brothers' relationship might be permanently harmed by a leadership battle that has become increasingly personal. "It is very, very important that we maintain family relationships," he said. "It was always the case that as we got nearer the finishing line, the media focus would sharpen. I am determined that it does not affect our relationship and I think it won't."

What about the rumours that David might not serve under him if he wins? "He is a fantastic asset to politics and Labour politics. I would clearly regret it if he left politics. In the end, it is his decision. I hope very, very much he stays." Ed would have no doubts about serving under David, saying: "I am not flouncing out. I am sticking around."