‘The wrong brother’

Books get trimmed and tightened in the editing process. And – in my experience – they are improved as a result. Despite which, here is an early, unedited draft of a passage from my forthcoming book All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century (published 17 June).

When Gordon Brown resigned as Labour leader after losing the general election in May 2010, the bookies’ odds-on favourite for the succession was David Miliband, with the former children’s secretary Ed Balls seen as the main threat.

Miliband had been Tony Blair’s chief advisor, while Balls had fulfilled the same role for Brown, so they were seen as the chosen heirs of the two previous incumbents, the next generation of the New Labour split. It looked an unequal contest. Balls, with his stocky build and bulging eyes and his reputation as a bully – whether deserved or not – wasn’t an obvious choice to win back millions of lost votes.

Also throwing their hats in the ring were David Miliband’s kid brother, Ed, who’d been energy secretary, and the outgoing health secretary Andy Burnham. At which stage it became apparent that these hats all looked much the same, belonging, as they did, to four white men, aged between forty and forty-four, who had been political advisors before they entered Parliament and were then fast-tracked into cabinet. For a party which proclaimed its faith in diversity and inclusion, it wasn’t ideal.

Alternatives were available on the hard left, where John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had expressed interest in standing, but the ranks on that wing were so thin that neither stood a chance of getting the support of thirty-three Westminster colleagues, that being the threshold needed to make it onto the ballot-paper. McDonnell eventually dropped out, after attracting just sixteen nominations, which allowed some of his backers – the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, John Cryer, Dennis Skinner – to switch to Abbott. It still wasn’t sufficient, though, and it seemed that the left would go unrepresented until David Miliband, his own position secured, decided he’d nominate her and encouraged others to do the same.

It seemed a harmless enough gesture on David Miliband’s part, but it was not entirely risk-free. Jack Straw, who’d managed Brown’s leadership campaign in 2007, later said he was happy there was only one name on the ballot paper on that occasion. ‘There’s enough risk in politics without manufacturing it,’ he reflected. MPs might have been wise to heed his words, even if they got away with it in 2010, because the indulgent inclusion of a token leftie set a dangerous precedent.

In the short term, however, it at least introduced some diversity to the contest. Abbott was a woman, the first black candidate ever to stand for the leadership, and considerably older than her rivals (Burnham hadn’t even taken his A-levels when she was first elected to Parliament). She was, perhaps, the leader that David Cameron, if not his backbenchers, would have found most awkward at prime minister’s questions, but she hadn’t a prayer of winning. Her presence at hustings – arguing an anti-Iraq, pro-spending, pro-immigration case that was popular with many activists – pushed the debate, and possibly the outcome, a little further to the left, as other candidates tried to compete; otherwise, she was just there to make up the numbers.

In the event, it was the battle between the Milibands that got all the attention, because they emerged as the front-runners and because fraternal conflict was such a good storyline.

To start with, it was not hard to believe that the two men were brothers. They were both bred-in-the-bone politicians – their father, Ralph, had been one of Britain’s leading academic Marxists – and both were intelligent, creative thinkers who’d proved to be competent ministers; if they were young, they did at least have cabinet experience, which was more than David Cameron, the new prime minister, did.

They were both clean-cut, decent and urban; smart-casual, with Fuzzy-Felt hairlines. Of the two, David was the more conventionally good looking. At Oxford he’d been nicknamed Donny, after 1970s teen-star Donny Osmond (‘because of his haircut and Colgate smile,’ said a contemporary). But Ed was endearingly lop-sided, the gawky but cute one in a minor boy-band. In 2001 the Guardian had reported that ‘sexy Eddie’s been getting love letters from admirers of his Woody Allen geek-chic look,’ and that imagery was still around. The contest was ‘The meek vs the geek’ said the Independent on Sunday, without specifying which was which. Columnist Matthew d’Ancona said that whenever he saw them, he found himself ‘humming Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”’.

David was still the front-runner, the serious candidate, the grown-up who looked at home on a podium. Though neither Blair nor Brown publicly backed any of the candidates, he had the support of the big Blairite beasts, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. Less obviously, he also had the endorsement of Gillian Duffy, the ‘bigoted woman’ of the general election campaign, who was getting used to journalists asking her opinion. ‘He’s a really nice man and obviously very intelligent but also down to earth,’ she said. ‘I think he would be a great prime minister.’

That left Ed as the default outsider, the eager, yappy underdog. He had some big-name support as well, including the 1980s leadership double-act of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, but he also had fans: young, enthusiastic, passionate fans. ‘Ed speaks human,’ they insisted, explaining that David was just a nerd, a dry theoretician, whereas their candidate was a man who connected with the people. ‘He has got the X-Factor,’ as Kinnock put it. Ed had been around New Labour for a long time, but he’d been in the background and wasn’t too tarnished by the past. Most importantly, he hadn’t been in Parliament for the Iraq debate, which meant that he had clean hands; he said he would have voted against the invasion.

Inside the party, these things mattered. Outside, it was the family drama, the soap story, that counted. ‘Not since Cain and Abel…’ wrote George Galloway, and others went for the same image, though Nick Cohen had the better Biblical parallel with the story of Jacob tricking his older brother Esau into selling his birthright for a mess of potage. For many people, those of a traditional cast of mind, this was precisely what was happening. David had first rights, just by virtue of being older; consequently, he’d been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Ed.

The result was announced at the party conference in September 2010. Labour still had an electoral college at this stage, divided into three, equally weighted sections – MPs and MEPs; constituency members; affiliated members (primarily trade unionists) – and it took four rounds of voting to knock out the various candidates.

Abbott fell first, then Burnham, then Balls. David Miliband was ahead throughout, but his lead was steadily reducing as second-preference votes swung against him, and in the final round, Ed’s support among trade unionists paid off; he beat his brother by a margin of 1.4 percentage points.

Though David put a brave face on it, he looked hurt and wounded by the experience. He declined to serve in Ed’s shadow cabinet and, in 2013, he quietly made his excuses and left Parliament, moving to New York City to head the International Rescue Committee, finally realising a dream he’d had even before entering Parliament of ‘running some big charity’.

Ed, on the other hand, never shook off that Biblical imagery. For a great many people, he was – and would always remain – the man who’d betrayed his brother; it was the one thing that everyone knew about him…

And that, according to some, was where it all started to go wrong. In the wake of Labour’s dreadful defeat in Hartlepool earlier this month, the town’s former MP Peter Mandelson told of his experience while out canvassing: ‘One person said to me “Sort yourselves out. You picked the wrong brother and you ended up with Corbyn so that’s goodbye to you.”’

coming soon…


One thought on “‘The wrong brother’

  1. Excellent piece Alwyn. The day Ed was elected leader i said to my son ‘They’ve picked the wrong brother’. It seemed obvious to me at the time and your article conds it


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