Political pundits have poured over Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech at the Labour Party Conference of 2010. We examine the three dilemmas facing the new leader, and the way in which he addressed them
First, some background: A defeat of Labour in the General Election of May 2010 was followed by the formation of the coalition government of David Cameron’s conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. It also led to the resignation of the leader and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The Labour Party initiated a lengthy selection process for a new leader.
There were five candidates, and a tortuous voting procedure with transferable votes. The original front runner was David Miliband. He was widely regarded as Blair’s preferred candidate, or ‘heir to Blair’. He had risen through the political ranks to become one of the youngest Foreign Secretaries ever. David was a committed member of the Blairite faction of the party, which still subscribed to the concept of New Labour which had kept them in power since 1997. Despite the unpopularity of Tony Blair, particularly for his supportive role to George Bush in the Iraq War, David Miliband appeared as the likely winner of the contest. The anti-Blairites had been badly damaged by the defeat of their leader Gordon Brown, and there was no obvious emerging leader from their ranks.
Enter Ed, Stage Left
The campaign was enlivened by the emergence of David’s younger brother Ed as a serious in the campaign. Ed, a relative inexperienced politician, started as a 33 to 1 outsider. But as the weeks of the campaign passed, it became clear that the two brothers were running neck and neck. There was much psychological talk of sibling rivalry. He became labelled ‘Red Ed’ by the Red Tops (Sorry, couldn’t resist that. I meant labelled by the right-leaning popular tabloid newspapers). Ed indicated his willingness to support the Unions who were talking up the possibility of widespread protest strikes against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government.
The bookies know something
A week before the voting figures were announced, David was believed to have held off the surprisingly feisty campaign from his younger brother (based on straw polls). Curiously, there was then a swing in the betting to Ed (must have been a leak somewhere). Because of the complex transferable vote system, the pundits still considered the contest too close to call.
The drama of the vote
The day of the announcement of the secret ballot arrived. This was a taster before the Labour Party conference. Much tension. The candidates, informed only shortly before, arrived at packed conference hall. David was smiling (rather unconvincingly, I thought). Ed looked spaced out, face drained of emotion. There was a painful period of suspence as candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed. David retained a slim lead, with far more support among MPs and Direct party members. Ed had secured much of the ‘block’ Union votes.
Ed squeaks past David
At the dramatic final announcement, Ed had squeaked past the long-time favourite. He had become leader against the wishes of the great majority of his fellow MPs and party membership. The two brothers embraced in a ‘well-down you deserved it/I’m sorry it had to be you I beat’ sort of way.
Agony and ecstasy
In the following days, the anguish of the defeated Miliband became clear. Slated to make a speech on the first day of the conference, he gallantly conceded his aspirations to the leadership. He received a rapturous reception as did Gordon Brown, who had come to make his farewells to conference. But David did not go so far as to say he would put himself forward for an appointment in Ed’s new shadow cabinet. He remained another day, long enough to witness Ed’s acceptance speech. By then the scribblers had decided David’s defeat career in politics was ended. They were quickly proved right, and David Miliband announced a day later that he would not put himself forward to serve in his brother’s shadow administration.
Dilemmas of leadership No 1: Dealing with the Blairites
When Labour’s new leader declared that the Iraq War was wrong, he and other former ministers who voted for the war - Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Andy Burnham – sat stony faced. Not so Harriet Harman. Seeing her clap David turns to her and angrily demands to know “you voted for it, why are you clapping?”
If ever evidence were needed of why David will, almost certainly, leave front line politics tomorrow this is it. He, and many others, deeply resent the way in which Ed – who wasn’t an MP at the time – used his rather less than public opposition to the war to win the party leadership.
This episode addressed Ed’s first leadership dilemma or ‘what should I do first about the potentially troublesome Blair faction of the party?’. The cold logic was to take out its acknowledged leader. Who just happened to be the brother he loved. And that’s about it. Dilemma No 1 addressed if not sorted.
Dilemma No 2: Dealing with the Unions
The second dilemma was equally clear: ‘what should I do to show I am not a puppet of the Unions?’ The logic was to signal in his first speech that his support for the Unions was far from unequivocal. He could not, would not, support ‘reckless’ strikes. Despite mutterings, the assembled Union leaders rather sullenly acknowledged that Red Ed was not as full-blooded a supporter as they might have imagined.
Dilemma No 3: Dealing with the Red Ed tag
The third dilemma was how to defuse the potential weakness of being labelled dangerously left-wing and therefore unelectable. The immediate step was to reduce the sting of the Red Ed label. His rather effectively mocked the epithet with a humorous call for more grown-up political discussion.
Explaining what Ed did and why
The analysis of Ed’s speech for dilemmas offers a plausible explanation of the issues the new leader considered most urgently in need of addressing. Such an examination looks beyond the rational towards the symbolic significance to find some sense in what has been said.
Miliband the victor had to remove all threat from the still hugely-popular Miliband the loser. As they say in the mafia movies, this is business. Nothing personal. Except of course it was deeply personal. He further judged that two other developing stories had to be confronted that otherwise might have weakened the invention of himself as leader. In the one case he had to scotch the claims that he was in the pocket of the Unions, and in the other the related claim that he was too left-wing to be a credible figure as a future Prime Minister.
Dilemmas are not problems to be solved. They do not permit correct solutions, nor decisions which seem likely to have no painful consequences. There were many ways in which Miliband minor could have avoided antagonizing important groups in the party. He chose to act the way he did. His speech has the merits of offering a coherent and courageous strategy. Will it succeed? That is beyond the scope of this analysis.