John Rentoul: A little fratricide can do Labour no harm

David Miliband has been much too restrained. He should have told some truths about his brother

Share
Related Topics

There are several journalistic clichés that ought to alert the reader to a non-story in the coverage of elections. "The gloves come off" is one of the hardiest. Last week, the last before the ballot papers go out in the Labour leadership election, it was reported that the contest between the two leading contenders was turning fratricidal. Well, that cliché did at least have the merit of referring to actual brothers. But the "personal attack" written up by The Guardian turned out to be David Miliband saying that opposition for the sake of it was "naive". I am not saying that this was not directed at his brother, but it was not a personal attack.

I'll tell you what a personal attack looks like. It looks like the young people who held up banners and placards reading "Ed Speaks Human" at Ed Miliband's leadership campaign launch in May. That attempt to project the younger brother as slightly less geeky than the elder one was unworthy but not entirely misconceived. At that point, Ed Miliband had a huge opportunity. Young and fresh, he had a chance to do what David Cameron did and use a long campaign to impress his party with his personable air. But there was more to Cameron's campaign than that. His positioning was astute, as the heir to Blair and, therefore, as the candidate best placed to exploit Labour's civil war and to win the general election.

In that respect, Ed Miliband's campaign is still on the taxiway. I will not rehearse all the reasons why I think David Miliband should win this election, but suffice it to say that in the past three months his brother has failed to convince as the candidate of whom the Government should be most afraid. Of course, David Miliband has his weaknesses. He is not nearly right-wing enough for people like me. (When I said that I realised why he had to adopt some left-wing positions during the leadership campaign, he responded, "Because I believe in them?") And, yes, his manner can be awkward. But he is no David Davis. And it has become clearer now that the younger brother is essentially a less ideologically flexible Gordon Brown with a better-functioning smile mechanism.

What is surprising is that this has become clear even without sustained scrutiny of Ed Miliband's record as a decision-maker and minister. After he was Gordon Brown's attendant who specialised in being rude to Tony Blair's staff ("Why haven't you packed up to go? There's a deal and he's got to go"), he had three important jobs in Brown's government. First, he was at the Cabinet Office, charged with giving a sense of purpose and direction to the Prime Minister's operation. According to Peter Mandelson, who eventually succeeded in that role, Ed "disappointed Gordon by not lending him more practical support when he was originally placed as a minister in the Cabinet Office". This was a central job at the heart of prime ministerial power, and he must share the blame for the disarray of Brown's first 18 months. And it fits with the younger Miliband's reputation in Whitehall for indecision.

Second, he was Climate Change Secretary, operating within the favourable political context created by his brother. It was David Miliband who had the imagination to turn global warming into a positive cause for Labour.

Third, he was in charge of writing Labour's manifesto for this year's election. Again Mandelson is uncomplimentary. As the election neared, he writes in his memoir, it emerged that there was a big problem with "the draft version of Ed Miliband's manifesto, which seemed to have been road-tested more with Guardian columnists than Philip [Gould]'s groups of voters". After Ed had oversold it as "radical", the document had to be rescued by people who knew what they were doing.

None of that has been brought into this supposedly gloves-off campaign by the elder brother. Or, indeed, by any of the other candidates. Most of the low-level aggression towards Ed Miliband has come from his former ally in the Brown camp, Ed Balls, and has focused on his claim to have opposed the Iraq war in secret. (He really was against the invasion, we were assured by an admiring Guardian interviewer last week, because an anonymous friend said so.) And yet David Miliband seems well-placed to win.

The only poll of party members and Labour-supporting trade unionists, carried out by YouGov last month, put the elder brother ahead by eight points, 54 to 46 per cent, after transferring the votes of the other three candidates. Since then, he has picked up more endorsements that testify to the breadth of his appeal. Jon Cruddas's blessing, conferred last week, was an important moment, a symbol of David Miliband's ability to work with the sensible left. It backs his claim in today's interview with The Independent on Sunday, to be the "unity candidate", and makes the point by contrast that his brother has shown himself to be polarising and factional. Mind you, I suspect that the endorsement that really counts was that from Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale voter described by Gordon Brown as a "bigoted woman" in the general election's head-in-hands moment. She met David Miliband and said: "He's a really nice man and obviously very intelligent but also down to earth. I think he would be a great prime minister."

What next? That is when David Miliband's stature as the unity candidate will really count. His "warm and comradely" approach means that the campaign has been dull for the rest of us. But after the election they will have to work together.

Among the first big decisions for David Miliband, if elected in four weeks' time, will be what jobs to give his brother and – more importantly – Ed Balls (Shadow Home Secretary rather than Chancellor, I guess). Party unity is a secret weapon in democratic politics, and David Miliband will need to deploy it straight away. That's why the gloves have stayed on.

John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Infrastructure Technical Lead - up to £45k DOE - Surrey

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Technical Architect - Surrey - £35k-£45k DOE - Permanent

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher needed for a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Gordon Brown’s finest hour, a letter from Quebec and the problem of anti-politics

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week