Old traumas have engulfed the Labour Party. Secret documents emerged last week which chronicled Gordon Brown's detailed preparations from 2005 to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. And yesterday saw a host of claims about the dire state of relations between the Miliband brothers.
Neither story, though of intense fascination to the Westminster village, has a huge amount of relevance to the outside world. The feud between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, damaging though it might have been at the time, is now history. Both leaders have since left the domestic political scene. Attempts by some newspapers to give the confidential documents some contemporary resonance by placing the present leader, Ed Miliband, and the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, at the centre of the internecine strife do not convince.
Similarly, attempts to imply that Labour is now as divided today, with the reported animosity between the Miliband brothers, as it was at the time of the Blair/Brown wrestling match is another unconvincing stretch. David Miliband is not in his brother's Shadow Cabinet team, nor (although some in the party appear to be set on destabilising the younger brother) is he actively seeking the leadership.
But while Labour's divisions have been exaggerated, it remains the case that Mr Miliband is not making the impact on the electorate that he must have hoped for when he won the Labour leadership nine months ago. Labour has picked up some support from disaffected Liberal Democrats since last year's general election, but Mr Miliband's personal poll ratings are unimpressive. And he remains an unknown quantity to many in the country. Indeed those around the Labour leader have taken some satisfaction that the opposition is finally, this week, in the spotlight.
But Mr Miliband should be wary of the argument that all publicity is good publicity. Both of these stories have the effect of defining Mr Miliband through the lens of a troubled past. What they reinforce is the negative image of the man who was once close to the plotting Mr Brown and who "betrayed" his brother for the prize of the leadership. Mr Miliband needs to define himself in his own terms, rather than allowing his opponents to do it for him.
There are some broad strategic choices. Should Labour oppose Coalition policies from the right or the left? Should it attack the Liberal Democrats, or court them in the hope of forming a future coalition? The answer will depend on the issue. Mr Miliband certainly needs to pick his battles more carefully. Calling for Ken Clarke's resignation last month, after the Justice Secretary made some foolish comments in an interview about the crime of rape, was a mistake. It made Mr Miliband look shallow because he had previously indicated he would support the sort of criminal justice reform that Mr Clarke is pursuing. His determination to distance Labour from Mr Blair's poisonous legacy over the Iraq war is sensible. But he needs to make it clear that the party he leads is not going to revert to being the political wing of the public service unions once again.
Mr Miliband also needs to define his constituency. In this he has actually made some progress. The "squeezed middle" slogan was initially derided, but it could end up proving potent given that much of the country islikely to feel the economic pinch over the coming years. The challenge for Mr Miliband is to make the broad mass of the public regard him as their natural champion.
The Labour leader will deliver a speech today in which he will attempt to outline what he has to offer. For once, he has the media spotlight. He must not waste it. Otherwise historic traumas will soon be replaced by contemporary woes.Reuse content