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

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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

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