Who is Ed Miliband?

Authors of the best accounts of the New Labour years delved deeply into the rival Brownite and Blairite versions of events before coming to their own conclusions. Those who did not frequently ended up with embarrassingly lopsided and inaccurate accounts.

Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre, the authors of Ed: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader, have avoided making the next generation’s version of the same mistake by talking to both sides of the Miliband family, even returning more than once to the conundrum of when Ed told David he was going to run against him for leader. The different versions of events from across the brotherly divide flatly contradict each other and, as the authors rightly point out, that is not a promising sign for a harmonious future.

Aside from balancing these conflicting camps well, the book also handles skilfully the fact that with such a new leader to write about, there is so far very little hindsight available with which to make sense of his earlier career. Yet due to the book’s balanced approached, whether Ed Miliband is a success or a failure, the explanations are likely to be found in the book. Most notably, it recounts several of the high profile campaigns he has run, from student politician through to Cabinet minister, which have two themes in common: successfully involving a large number of people yet also failing in the end to deliver the main objectives with Ed Milband eagerly trying to describe failure as success. Whether he should succeed or fail, that is a record that future biographers with the advantage of hindsight will merrily return to in order to give their explanations.

Where the book struggles rather more is in explaining quite what Ed Miliband really believes. The book goes through various occasions where it has been claimed he was critical of the Blair/Brown governments, weighing up the evidence and concluding that on several occasions he did indeed dissent, albeit usually very privately. Yet in parallel with this account of a thoughtful critical friend, the book also presents an account of someone who was extremely loyal to Gordon Brown, opposing plots against him and insisting that he should not be ousted before the 2010 general election. Ed Miliband appears to have been at the same time both more critical of Brown than other Brownites yet also the loyalest of the loyal to Brown.

Ed Miliband appears to have wanted to both have his cake and eat it. This unresolved question does at least explain the curiosity of the book finding plenty of evidence of Ed Miliband thinking of standing for Labour leader well before a vacancy arose, yet also when it came to it being horribly unprepared and having to fight through organisational chaos for several weeks. It was as if he had been both wanting to stand yet also not want to do so – hence talking about it yet not preparing for it.

More positively, what comes through clearly is how important being nice has been to his political career. A large part of the reason he was able to present himself in the leadership contest as the man to leave behind the old Blair-Brown struggles, despite having been such a central Brownite figure, is that – to put it in an old fashioned way – whilst many of his colleagues spent their years in governments swearing at others, he spent the years showing good manners.

One area the book does not shed any light on is the almost comical lack of preparedness for hung Parliament negotiations by the Labour Party. Despite many in the party for a long time thinking their best hope was to be the largest party in a hung Parliament, when a hung Parliament did occur, Labour was unprepared for negotiations. Ed Balls only discovered shortly before the first meeting with the Liberal Democrats that he was on the negotiating team, for example, and his preparations for that involved a quick chat over a cup of tea just beforehand with Peter Mandelson.

Yet Ed Miliband should have been central to a proper preparation process. As prime author of the manifesto, he should have been thinking – however infrequently – about what might or might not work in a hung Parliament. As one of Gordon Brown’s closest advisors he should have been reminding the then Prime Minister that a hung Parliament would then require talks and talks require preparation.

His failures in this regard are not simply a matter of historical curiosity because if the truth is that he (like many others) was so lost in traditional Labour tribalism that he failed to grasp a hung Parliament wouldn’t simply be a matter of Gordon Brown telling other parties what to do, then how likely as leader is he to be at getting the pluralism he occasionally talks about right?

That said, the authors are by no means unthinking apologists for Labour and make the powerful point that in one respect the die is already cast for Ed Miliband’s leadership: during those early days when he could set the public’s perception of him there was no single iconic picture. Contrast that with David Cameron and the controversial but (in part for  that very reason) successful huskies photograph.

As they add, “Mischievous critics of the Labour leader have suggested there is such a snap: Ed hugging his defeated brother … The perceived void over what Ed stands for risks being filled by a definition probably most recognisable to the pubic: that he is the man who ‘shafted’ his brother”.

At this early stage in his leadership any book can’t hope to answer for sure the question of whether Ed Miliband’s leadership will ever amount to more than that. But this book does a good job at filling in the background against which we can all speculate.

You can buy Ed: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre from Amazon.

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16 Comments

  • There is no point spending too much time trying to decode Ed Miliband. At some point Labour will realise that he is not up to scratch and they will replace him. The coalition have lurched from one mistake to the next and under Ed’s leadership Labour have utterly failed to take advantage.

  • @andrew tennant

    first prize in the ‘old tribalist of the kind the Lib Dems have been trying to convince the public was left behind with advent of new politics’ award. Congratulations.

  • Paul McKeown 21st Jul '11 - 3:56pm

    I really can’t work up the enthusiasm to either like or dislike Ed Miliband; as to what he stands for, surely it’s simply political careerism, PPE, SPAD, fast track to a safe seat, politically a chameleon, say anything uncontroversially leftish, don’t rock the boat within his party. As it is he struggles to persuade his own party members and core support, I can’t see him convincingly reaching out to the broader public. If he were to become Prime Minister, it would be entirely an accident of history.

  • Daniel Henry 21st Jul '11 - 4:38pm

    I’m with Paul. I’ve nothing against the guy and haver often found myself agreeing with his policy ideas but he’s just not a figure of leadership.

    I think the AV campaign demonstrated it quite clearly, that although he and most of his front bench were in favour, the vast majority of his party came out against. I don’t think he has it in him to drag his party towards his own progressive ideals.

    I think he’d make a great coalition partner though. I think we’d be more than happy to fill in his “blank sheet” for him! 😉

  • Ed’s problem is that there is no obvious answer to what the Labour Party is for at the moment. The democratic process needs an opposition, and the party clearly fulfils that role, but it also requires a potential alternative government, and at the moment the Labour Party is entirely unconvincing as a government in waiting. Thirteen years is a long time to be in power, and it is pretty well inevitable that a party runs out of ideas and capable people over a period like that. Time in opposition which allows debate, reflection and a distancing from the relentless pressure of governing is essential, and if history is any guide it will take more than one parliamentary term for the party to become electable again. History also shows that the person elected leader of the Labour Party after it has been defeated in office is never the one who leads them back into office. Of course, there is no immutability about that, but I don’t think many people would place much money on Ed Miliband being the person to overturn that history.

  • “Ed’s problem is that there is no obvious answer to what the Labour Party is for at the moment. ”

    The obvious answer is a centre-left alternative to the current union of right-wing parties in power – that’s obvious – the two other main parties now split the right-wing vote (except in Scotland where people vote SNP as their left-of-centre choice). Labour are consistently ahead in the polls despite Miliband’s ‘leadership’ – which just goes to show how much a substantial swathe of the electorate despise the coalition – and that’s before the results of the coalition’s policies really start to destroy the fabric of the country. A donkey could lead Labour to victory at the next election, and probably will.

  • paul barker 21st Jul '11 - 8:27pm

    I have vivid memories of the moment Ed M won the leadership, I thought he looked apalled & terrified while his brother seemed releived. I am not sure Ed really wanted to win even while the race was on. I rather admire such self-doubt.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Jul '11 - 11:04pm

    @ tonyhill
    “History also shows that the person elected leader of the Labour Party after it has been defeated in office is never the one who leads them back into office.”

    Hm. That’s one of those apparent facts that doesn’t amount to much when you analyse it. It basically means that neither Gaitskell (who lost in 1959 but probably would have won in 1964 if he hadn’t died early) nor Foot won an election. It’s hardly evidence of a tendency – just a reflection of the fact that Labour haven’t had many periods in government and on one of the three previous occasions when they were booted out didn’t get rid of their defeated leader (Wilson in 1970).

  • David Allen 22nd Jul '11 - 5:08pm

    “nobody knows what he stands for”

    Also true of Cameron, accurately labelled “chameleon” following his election to the leadership.

    True in spades of Clegg, who campaigned for the Party leadership as an amiable centrist and then shifted hard to the right. The con worked, so he did exactly the same again at the General Election.

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