The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party is surely not as surprising as much of the media suggests it was. He may have started at the back of the pack five months ago but any half-serious candidate to the left of David Miliband had a good chance. Diane Abbott, who is definitely to the left of David, was not a serious candidate, and Ed Balls, who is probably to his left, could not escape from his relationship with Gordon Brown. What’s really surprising is that David should be thought to have been an inevitable successor to Brown. The older Miliband is intelligent and personable but irredeemably associated with the failures of New Labour as well as its successes. He was there at the beginning, just as he was at the end and all the wrong turnings on the way. His three years as foreign secretary, while not as lowering as (say) Jack Straw’s tenure, do not suggest that he had any real idea why Labour had got itself into such a mess or that he was the man to get it out. And, of course, he supported the Iraq war: there was no getting away from that, while lucky Ed was not in Parliament at the time.
That David was thought to be the inevitable successor is an index of the degree to which a debased electoral opportunism still dominates the thinking of so many in the Parliamentary Labour Party. You would not guess from the often offensive language used by David’s anonymous parliamentary supporters who talked so freely to the press – the election of Ed showed that the Labour Party was now just ‘a party of losers’, one said – that the support of the ‘aspirational’ classes so dear to their hearts, if by them is meant marginal seats in Southern England, was lost while they were running the show. Furthermore, could either they or their candidate really have thought he could get the vote of the majority of individual trade unionists? These men and women did not vote as conspirators or as puppets of trade union bosses; they voted as members of working class or lower middle-class occupations that had not done conspicuously well from governments run by David’s friends. Ed, after all, had mentioned the words ‘minimum wage’ in his campaign.
Too much attention has been given to Ed’s success among the trade unions. In fact he had significant support in all three sections of the electoral college and is as broadly representative a leader as David would have been had he got that extra 1 per cent. As for the ‘Red Ed’ business, the notion that Ed’s cautious social democracy is ‘red’ demonstrates the extent to which a Thatcho-Blairite vocabulary still dominates our political language. And it exaggerates the difference between Ed and the other candidates. David, after all, is in favour of ending the charitable status of private schools and of a mansion tax, though neither of the prime ministers under whom he served was. Ed Balls wants a much more ‘left-wing’ programme of debt reduction than the one that is official Labour policy at the moment. Where Ed Miliband stands on debt reduction we do not know.
Ed will now be – already is – under a lot of pressure to disavow redness and conciliate the Tory press. He should not do that. Nothing will be gained from it, either electorally or politically, especially as we know so little about the immediate political future, while the notion that the ‘aspirational’ classes are necessarily hostile to the state or are raging for ‘choice’ is simply a myth. Many of Labour’s problems, in fact, are a result of Labour forcing ‘choice’ on people who did not want it – in education, for instance, or in health. And he shouldn’t adopt the Blairite tactic of trying to demonstrate that the Tories are ‘soft’ on crime or immigration. That never works and merely raises the electoral significance of crime or immigration. He should, for example, support Kenneth Clarke’s attempts to reduce the prison population, and to his credit he seems to be doing this. And he should resist the temptation, which, again to his credit he seems to be doing, to denounce the Lib Dems, a traditional Labour Party sport which has got them nowhere. He has also said he will support AV. He may encourage the Labour Party as a whole to support it as well. He is, in fact, in a position to do some of those ‘modernising’ things that New Labour said it would do but never did. As to how he re-establishes his relationship with his brother, that is something about which outsiders can say or do little. But perhaps David himself should have been readier to contemplate the possibility that he might lose than he appears to have been.