As David Miliband departs, it’s time for Ed to show us his alternative is different
Ed Miliband ran for the Labour leadership because he believed he could offer an alternative; an alternative not just to the coalition government but, more crucially at that time, an alternative vision for Britain to that which his brother David was offering. Two and a half years on, with David Miliband departing British politics to go and head up the charity International Rescue Committee, it’s worth considering whether Ed’s alternative is really proving to be radically different.
On the face of it, it seems a slightly stupid question; since the starting gun to the leadership election in 2010, the media have delighted in contrasting ‘Red Ed’ with his more centrist brother David, desperately seeking to extend the dividing lines of the Blair-Brown era. If we are to believe the political commentariat, Ed and David are the proverbial chalk and cheese of the modern Labour party. Their visions for Britain are supposedly almost irreconcilably different.
Yet so far under Ed’s leadership, has the Labour party really adopted a stance that is so radically different to that which they would have if David was at the helm? The leaking of the speech that David Miliband planned to give on assuming the leadership in September 2010 certainly revealed a desire for Labour to appear more fiscally conservative than they do under Ed’s leadership. However, Ed too originally offered support for the Darling plan of cutting the deficit in half over four years. But as the evidence has mounted on the damage being done to our economy by reductions in public expenditure, Ed’s stance on deficit reduction has altered to the extent that it now seems obvious that he actually favours a short-term rise in the deficit in order to try and stimulate the economy. Is it so implausible that David also would have altered his stance on deficit reduction in the face of such conclusive evidence on the harm it is currently inflicting?
Some would doubtless argue he wouldn’t have wavered, and would cite his speech on the Welfare Uprating Bill as evidence that he is still more committed to the idea of deficit reduction than his brother. Yet even that speech was far more similar to the choices being put forward by Ed than the media write-up suggested. For example, in that speech, David outlined the savings that could be made from limiting tax relief on pension contributions to £26,000; only days earlier, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband had suggested ending higher rate tax relief on pensions altogether. The policies are obviously slightly different but the intentions are broadly the same.
Nor should one forget that in making that speech on the Welfare Uprating Bill, David Miliband was in fact attacking it as a ‘rancid’ Bill that ‘is not about fairness or affordability’. For many Blairites, Labour were wrong to attack that Bill because they saw it as a trap that George Osborne was setting in order to be able to attack the party as being weak on so-called ‘benefit scroungers’. Yet David choose that day to side with his brother rather than the Blairites in the party; once more, the so-called divide between the two brothers was illusory not real.
So if the differences between the two brothers since the leadership election have actually been deceptively small what does that suggest? Did the party elect the wrong leader after all? I didn’t think we did back in 2010 and I still don’t think so now, partly because I could never stomach the idea of being led by someone who will be forever tainted by his defence of extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects and his vote in favour of going to war in Iraq.
It was also apparent from the leadership election in 2010 that despite the many testaments to his ability as a politician, David Miliband wasn’t very adept at playing political games. If only a few more Labour MPs had voted for him he would have been over the line yet his apparent unwillingness to really go that extra mile to secure those votes cost him dear. It was a similar story with the votes of union members, a section of the electoral college David seemed almost disinterested in winning despite it making up a third of the total vote. Many within the party don’t like that the unions have that much say in the contest, but in no way should that excuse the fact that David didn’t compete as hard for union votes as he should have.
Since Ed’s victory, he has faced constant jibes from the Right about how he only won because of the unions, but that misses the point; the union vote was worth no more than the party member and MP vote in the electoral college. Ed simply took the pragmatic approach of competing as hard as possible for votes in all three sections. To be sure, in the union section of the vote Ed secured a large victory but ultimately he still would have lost out to his brother if he hadn’t managed to push him so close in the members’ and MPs’ section of the vote. To the extent that politics is about winning, Ed proved himself to be a superior politician to his brother in that leadership election.
To be absolutely sure that we elected the right brother though, it’s time for Ed Miliband to start unveiling a vision for Britain that truly is different to the one his brother would have offered. Because even if the differences between the two over the past couple of years have been more illusory than real, the reason many on the Left choose to place their faith in Ed over David was because there was, and still remains, a feeling that he is the one capable of providing a more radical alternative. During his leadership, Ed has given many a speech where one senses his desire to create a radically restructured economy, but the policies that would be required to get there remain something of a pipedream.
Maybe those on the Left who expected something dramatically different under Ed were misguided. Maybe Ed never intended to radically break with the misguided policies of the New Labour years. But if that were the case it would be hard to comprehend why he ran against his brother in the first place, given the undoubted anguish it has caused the family. One senses there is a more radical and progressive alternative waiting to escape Ed Miliband; it’s time we saw it.