Leading article: Waiting for Ed to succeed

Sunday 19 June 2011 00:00
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We reported last week that friends of David Miliband said that he still wants the top job and is "waiting for his brother to fail". It was a jolting reminder of the division and bitterness that lie beneath the surface. Labour optimists point out that, in contrast to 1979, the party has not fallen into civil war. Yet there is a deep divide between the Blairites and the Brownites, which began as a struggle between metaphorical brothers and ended as a family quarrel between real ones.

In such a drama it was inevitable that the audience would be engaged by the story of the younger brother usurping the elder. Jon Cruddas, once a contender for Labour's deputy leadership, is quoted in a new biography of Ed Miliband as saying to David: "Why don't you fucking punch him? That's what I'd do." In this, Mr Cruddas reflects public opinion. One of the few things that most people know about the Labour leader is that he "did his brother in" to get the job, and they do not like it. This is partly unfair. He had every right to put himself forward. But it sticks because he has projected no new, memorable information about himself and about why he wanted the job. If people had a clear idea of what he wants for the country, they might respect the steel that he showed in seizing the job.

Ed Miliband shows in his interview with this newspaper today that he understands his challenge and intends to rise to it, although he refuses to say much about his brother. "I'm not going to get into that," he says. Although it is "nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense" that his wife, Justine, and David's wife, Louise, have a tense relationship.

But he recognises that he has to answer the questions "What's wrong with the country?" and "What do you want to change?". And he knows that, although there is a big difference between the Government and the Opposition now over how to cut the deficit, the state of the public finances is not "the only thing that matters". The issue will look very different by the time of the election.

In the interview, and in a speech last week, he talks about demanding responsibility from the rich as well as the poor. This is an interesting theme, broadly aligning Labour with the Government on ending benefit dependency among the poor, while trying to open up a gap over the Government's apparent indulgence of the irresponsible rich.

His speech last week was a good one, unusually thoughtful and well written, and it paid skilful homage to the Blairites, reworking a Peter Mandelson quotation thus: "To those entrepreneurs and business people who generate wealth, create jobs and deserve their top salaries, I'm not just relaxed about you getting rich, I applaud you." But good speeches are not enough.

Last week, Ed Miliband also produced a stronger showing at Prime Minister's Questions, after a poor one the week before. He caught David Cameron off balance with a pointed question about benefits for people recovering from cancer. Such performances are not the most important part of politics, although they set the bar.

The Labour leader should be more worried by the findings of our ComRes opinion poll today. His personal ratings are poor and getting worse, and, while the party appears to be level-pegging with the Conservatives, this is a false comfort because the two governing parties together have an 11-point lead over Labour.

Ed Miliband's position is not hopeless. It is possible for him to succeed, just as it is possible that the coalition might fail. (Although, if the coalition did fail, it is doubtful that the Labour Party would be ready to step up in the next year or two.) But he has so far lacked forcefulness and energy. He has been too fastidious in shunning public relations stunts: it is easy for media-literate sophisticates to sneer at David Cameron's huskies and bicycle-riding, but they defined him as a different kind of Tory.

The Brownites tended to be dismissive, too, of Tony Blair's "electric shock therapy", of saying things that would not be expected of a Labour leader partly in order to attract attention. But it is not as if Mr Miliband has found another way of letting people know where he stands.

He needs to find ways of surprising people with his answers to what is wrong with the country, with the widespread feeling that Britain is a divided nation and the growing sense of unfairness. We do not feel that we are all in it together, and that, surely, is Mr Miliband's cue.

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