Blairite sniping means Miliband must make a flawless start

The new leader has a high-wire act to perform but has no safety net, writes Steve Richards
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Indy Politics

Even at a moment of heightened drama, Labour struggles to make a break with the past. In strange circumstances Ed Miliband is its first leader to be elected in a proper contest since 1994. A new generation takes over. Finally the Blair/Brown duopoly is over.

Yet already there are echoes. In Manchester some Blairites fume angrily. Several wonder whether they will stand now for the Shadow Cabinet. Some contemplate following their original political hero, Tony Blair, and leaving orthodox politics altogether. "The whole thing is a disaster," is an observation I have heard several times, and started to hear within minutes of the result.

Blairites used to accuse followers of Gordon Brown of disloyalty and briefing to the media. Some show they know how to fight their corner too. Parts of the media pay homage, determined to portray the outcome as Labour's equivalent to the Conservatives' election of Iain Duncan Smith.

As ever, the past is a treacherous guide. The Conservatives' vote-losing leaders after 1997 fought landslide Labour governments while the economy boomed. Mr Miliband becomes leader in a hung parliament weeks before the Coalition announces a package of cuts that is being implemented with a speed and depth likely to make Britain's fragile recovery more precarious. He faces a mountain of challenges, but the climb is nowhere near as steep as the one that was too daunting for Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard and – to some extent – Cameron.

How Mr Miliband responds to the immediate context of his victory will determine whether he is ready for the more modest ascent. Signalling distance from the trade unions is relatively straightforward: he should oppose any strikes called in protest at what is described too sweepingly as "the cuts". There is nothing to gain from supporting industrial action that will alienate voters and make the Coalition's task easier.

But Mr Miliband needs to move much more carefully and subtly in his response to the private protestations of his elder brother's more ardent supporters. One of the many lessons from Gordon Brown's career is that a leader who tries too hard to please everyone lacks authenticity. When Mr Brown became leader in 2007, he sought to elevate Blairites, attract the support of the Daily Mail and project himself as an apolitical father of the nation. He lost any distinct public voice. Tony Blair's approach, which was to project himself against his party, worked for a time but inevitably caused problems when he ended up being more enthusiastically supported by David Cameron.

Mr Miliband has two ways of looking at the challenge ahead. One is to fret neurotically about the barriers in front of him and attempt to leap haphazardly over them. The other is to focus with a strategic ruthlessness on what he has to do – a model from the Blair/Brown era that is worth following. From 1992-1997, the duo in their separate ways had a clear sense of what was required for Labour to win and they followed their chosen path with unswerving clarity.

Mr Miliband's biggest challenge now is that he needs an economic strategy. The economy is the pivotal battleground. By the end of the parliament, David Cameron and George Osborne hope to go into the election with a tax-cutting manifesto. They might not be able to do so with any credibility, but Mr Miliband needs to assume he will face a 1980s-style Tory pitch at the next election on tax cuts. Conservatives won landslides in the 1980s.

For Labour to have a chance, it needs to work now on a credible, popular alternative. The appointment of Shadow Chancellor is almost as important as the election of leader. Ed Balls is the only candidate able to mix economic policy-making with strategic guile and a capacity to target an opponent's weaknesses. He is an obvious Shadow Chancellor. The new leader faces many tests, but the biggest is to get this appointment right.

What happens between him and David is more up to David than Ed. The younger brother has made his big move in this relationship. David must decide what to do now the move has destroyed any chance of him becoming leader, or is perceived to have done so. I add the important qualification because two other overlooked factors played their part in David's failure to acquire the crown.

Curiously he was damaged when he first became associated with the top job. In the spring of 2007, senior Blairites urged him to stand against Mr Brown as Mr Blair prepared to stand down. Wisely, David decided not to do so, but from that moment he became a leader-in-waiting. Most leaders-in-waiting do not become leader. In his case, he became seen as the Blairites' candidate, an unfair caricature, and in recent times an unfashionable one. The other factor was his promotion to the Foreign Office. The post gave him a claim to prime ministerial readiness, but it took him away from the domestic agenda. He had been an outstanding and radical Environment Secretary. If he had stayed there and established a more distinct voice in domestic politics, he might well have won.

If I were him, I would get out of Westminster politics for a bit. But I fear he will be tempted to take the shadow chancellorship, and will be under pressure to do so from some of those who backed him. If he does, it will end in more damaging tears than a dignified and perhaps temporary departure from the front line.

As for his younger brother, his interview yesterday with Andrew Marr was a serviceable debut. He had poise and, crucially, engaged as if he was having a conversation. He made a joke about his Red Ed label – the most effective way of dealing with an issue that worries him more than any other. He also made the point that it is not dangerously left-wing to argue that government has a role in regulating the banks or to be concerned about student debt. He showed the way to win a case is not to articulate one policy for a so-called "core vote" and another for middle Britain, but to discover a language and a coherent programme that has broad appeal.

If leaders are any good, the origins of their election are soon forgotten. If they do not rise to the epic demands, the origins become one of many factors in their downfall. For the next few months Miliband walks the high wire. If he makes a mistake, a negative impression becomes almost irretrievably formed. The ultra-Blairites and Conservatives predict disaster. The rest of the country will give him a bit of time and goodwill, but not that much of either. He needs to make a flawless start.

Who has the ear of the new leader - and who has been cast into the wilderness

Inner circle

Stewart Wood: Oxford academic and former adviser to Gordon Brown. Ed Miliband's head of communications.
Katie Myler: Daughter of 'News of the World' editor, Colin. Former special adviser to Jacqui Smith and Andy Burnham. Joined Team Ed late in the day.
Sadiq Khan: Former transport minister who backed Ed from early on. Ran day-to-day planning of the election campaign.
Polly Billington: Former BBC journalist. Became special adviser to Miliband when he was Climate Change Secretary

Outer circle

Harriet Harman: Handed Ed Miliband a job as a speechwriter and researcher in 1993. He also backed her campaign for having more women in the shadow Cabinet.
Lord Kinnock: The first big party figure to come out in support, saying he had the "capacity to inspire people".
Peter Hain: One of first former Cabinet ministers to back Ed Miliband, saying he could "consign Blairite/Brownite factionalism to the dustbin".
John Denham: Another former Cabinet minister to declare his support early on. Spoke out for him in the media.
Hilary Benn: Co-chairman of the Ed Miliband campaign, hitting the phones and persuading MPs to back his man.
David Miliband: Battle with his brother turned nasty by the end, but both will be keen to repair the relationship.

Out in the cold
Alan Johnson: Running again for shadow Cabinet job, but has some making up to do after saying David Miliband "head and shoulders above the other candidate".
Jack Straw: Will not serve in the Shadow Cabinet, after announcing he would be stepping down from Labour's front bench after 23 years of service.
Alistair Darling: Has warned the new leader not to abandon his plan to cut the deficit. Stepping down from the front bench.
Lord Mandelson: Stuck the knife into Ed Miliband by criticising the manifesto he drew up for the general election. Don't expect another comeback.
Tony Blair: His call for the party not to turn to the left was taken as a warning against selecting Ed over his brother, David.

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