Matthew Norman: Brothers at war – it's a Jewish thing

In challenging a natural order of things stretching back to their Hampstead bunk beds, Ed shows the appetite for conflict that is an essential quality in an Opposition leader
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The Independent Online

Two brothers, Abe and Hymie, are in front of a firing squad. "Have you anything to say before you are shot?" asks the Gestapo captain. "Can we stand behind the wall?" says Hymie. "No, you cannot stand behind ze vall. Stand still." "In that case," says Hymie, "fuck you and Adolf Hitler." "For God's sake, Hymie, you moron," yells Abe, "don't cause trouble."

With four months of leadership campaigning left to test the elasticity of their fraternal bonds, trouble awaits David and Edward Miliband. Already conjoined in cynical minds as Dedward, they might have a shot at getting away with it were they, like those winsome X-Factor lads, twins. Admittedly, womb-sharing didn't save Jacob and Esau from their bust-up over inheritance, but genetic research and anecdotal evidence suggests twins are less vulnerable to the tensions that split other male siblings asunder.

But Jewish brothers, separated by a resentment-maximising four years, scrapping for the same prize? Oy, oy and thrice oy... and you can throw in a couple of veys for good measure, too. A miracle is required if today's expressions of love and best friendship aren't to look a touch poignant by 25 September, because they are up against more than average sibling rivalry. Secular and atheistic Jews they both may be, but Jewish they are nonetheless. The history of our race is so firmly predicated on brothers falling out that the fraternal broigus is encoded, along with an inability to handle alcohol and a predisposition to Crohn's disease, in the Ashkenaze DNA.

From Cain and Abel in Eden, via Jesus and Satan in the desert, all the way to the still barely explained eruption of seething non-speakers (I've always blamed Schnorbitz, but that's conjecture) between Mike and Bernie Winters, the "Bro-gus" is a defining leitmotif. Not a self-respecting Yiddishe family will be without its warring brothers, most of whom will have become estranged over something slightly less incendiary than a battle for the possible future premiership of Britain. Two brothers in my family didn't speak for decades, and that was over a cash-and-carry.

So let us wish these Milibands, and above all their mother Marion, the very best as they embark on a race that resembles another type of premiership in being not a sprint but a marathon. The snickers have begun already, and will become crueller as these mildly engaging, slightly weird boys keep reassuring us, while grinding their tooth enamel into fine powder, how they adore each other to smithereens.

The core reason that brothers of all religions, races and cultures fall out is not their distinctness, of course, but their similarity. This presents the Miligeeks with a specific problem. Unless you're a Labour supernerd, you will have no more clue than I what divides them ideologically. Albeit Mili Major was Blair's fag while Mili Minor was warming Gordon's loo seat, both were central players in the ideology-free electioneering machine dignified as New Labour. Since it has ceased to win elections, we don't strictly need David to tell us New Labour is dead. Nor do we need him heralding Next Labour, which sounds like a high-street clothes store where those Milibillies might have bought a George Davies-designed retro donkey jacket in 1992.

What Labour members do need is for one or both to set out, in plain English sentences preferably involving verbs, what they believe. If and when they get round to this (with just 18 weeks to go, the clock's ticking), the danger is that they will come up with something virtually identical... a wishy-washy, mishy-mashy stew of continental social democracy and consensus post-Thatcherite free-market economics seasoned with the gentle herb of compassionate interventionism.

"Inclusivity" will be the key (when these days is it not?), which loosely translates to trying to offend none of the people none of the time by fudging the divides between the interests of the poorest, the self-interest of the professional middle class, and the immigration concerns of the C2s in between. In so far as either will offer anything that constitutes a political philosophy, it will be a messy potage, though not a potty message. Calm sanity both can do fine, and après Gordon for that relief much thanks. It's connecting with the earthlings that will be the challenge.

One lesson of the Mr Tony-Gordon era the Milibands did so much to sustain, and now disown with such glib faux-amnesia, is that an ideological vacuum is naturally filled by personality. Here again they have problems because, for all the precocious cleverness, they are alarmingly bland. In musical terms, they are more The Proclaimers than the Gallaghers of Oasis (although give them time to work on that tribute act). Had they formed a group a few years ago, they'd have been morally obliged to call it Mili Vanilla, and then mimed along to the voices of Tony and Gordon.

So this election, assuming neither cuddly Ed Balls nor the eyelash supermodel Andy Burnham interferes too impertinently in this family affair, should come down to who can best shake off the android aura, find the empathetic lingua franca of the age, and honour the chivalric code of combat politics by seeking to destroy his brother in the gentlest possible way.

Here the smart money should be on Ed, and judging by the movement of the odds, it already is. For one thing he looks vaguely human, whereas David off-puttingly resembles an albino Barack Obama, ears and all. For another, he speaks passable human, and not the incomprehensible think-tank patois preferred by David. Thirdly, and perhaps decisively, his candidacy itself confirms that he is the more ruthless of the two.

As his coquettish knicker-flashing over previous unconsummated leadership bids established, David is a wuss – an impression his ridiculous haste to declare now was intended to mitigate, but in fact confirmed. Seeking to tie it up too soon made him look desperate to avoid a scrap. His is the brand of diffidence that isn't diffidence at all, but rather the urge to avoid a fight through fear of being bruised by rejection.

In taking on his elder brother, meanwhile, and challenging a natural order of things stretching back to their Hampstead bunk beds, Ed shows the appetite for conflict that is an essential quality in an Opposition leader. At 40, he could have afforded to sit this one out, as perhaps David imagined he would, and wait for the next. The decision to run, which must have pained him, took some courage.

Whoever leads Labour will need plenty of that, first sharply to disabuse the party of the assumption that the coalition will collapse and hand the next election to Labour on a silver platter; and then to decide and clearly define, in defiance of internal dissent that may border on civil war, what and for whom his party now stands. Labour requires a leader who can look into the barrel of a gun and still have the nerve to cause trouble. Whether that man is Ed remains unclear, but it sure as hell isn't David.