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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Don't listen to the carping comments. The best man won

For the past couple of years, I've been telling anyone who would listen that the next leader of the Labour Party would be Ed Miliband. He's clever, warm and very modern, a fact that's sent much of the media into a state of comic incomprehension since his surprise victory over his elder brother last weekend. Who is this guy? Why isn't he married? Is he really an atheist? Ed hasn't been in frontline politics as long as David Miliband, which accounts for some of the bewilderment. But he's stood up to a bruising first week – everything from an invitation to propose to his partner on live TV to accusations of political fratricide – in a way that speaks volumes about his confidence and sense of purpose.

Before the BBC strike was called off on Friday, Ed urged staff not to black out David Cameron's speech at this week's Conservative Party conference, demolishing accusations that he's too close to the unions. Last weekend I was one of 700 women who crowded into Manchester town hall for a meeting organised by Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, and when Ed arrived he got a standing ovation. Many of us regretted the absence of a substantial female candidate in the leadership election, but one of the key things about Ed's "new generation" is that they get the importance of equality.

That's a significant break with the past. The Labour Party is full of men who say the right things about equal rights, but they don't really feel it in their gut. Women still struggle to be selected for safe seats, and there's too much "think left, live right"' among the old guard – I mean "old" in terms of values as much as age, as Ed observed in his conference speech. I belong to Tony Blair's generation but he produced a raft of policies that seemed to me old-fashioned and socially conservative; Gordon Brown was even worse, pressing ahead with New Labour's agenda while radiating a sense of thwarted masculine entitlement. He talked the language of equality but marginalised women ministers, as Caroline Flint and others attested.

Ed Miliband has talked about his pride in all-women shortlists and praised Labour's role in changing attitudes to gay people, and in both instances he sounds completely sincere. His domestic arrangements (he is an unmarried father) reflect the way many people live these days, valuing the role of parents but not regarding marriage as some kind of moral test; he also knows that religious faith isn't necessary to lead a decent existence. In that sense, he's the most modern leader Labour has ever had, and I'm convinced that the public will warm to him as he grows into the job.

One thing he doesn't need to worry about is the myth of his brother David as "Labour's lost leader". That was the headline in The Times, above a photograph of the elder Miliband looking sombre as his wife laid her head on his shoulder; it's only on closer examination that it becomes apparent that Louise Shackelton is actually reaching behind her husband to close their front door. Political history is full of men (they always are men) who tragically failed to fulfil their destiny, but if David Milband had won the contest it would have been a very different story; the banana photograph would have come out again, and the former foreign secretary would have been dismissed as a Blairite who supported the Iraq war.

The truth is that Ed's victory has wrong-footed political commentators. They're having to play catch-up with the new boy on the block, and they're doing a pretty good job of under-estimating him. It's early days, and Ed Miliband has some stiff tests ahead, but don't be surprised if he's this country's next prime minister.