This Saturday David Miliband will become leader of the Labour party. He will have won a majority of his Parliamentary colleagues and the wider membership, along with sufficient support from unions and other affiliates to secure not just victory but an overwhelming mandate. The New Labour era will be over.
A few months ago I wrote that this leadership contest would tell us more about ourselves as a party than it did the candidates contesting it. It has. Less an election, more an exercise in psychoanalysis, we’ve delved into the deepest recesses of a party’s soul. Remorse, guilt, envy, hatred, love, fear, hope. Above all, hope.
We wept for the supporters abandoned to the government’s tender mercies. Felt shame for the crimes we committed in our own ruthless pursuit of power. Looked jealously upon those who wrested it from us.
We’ve hurled ourselves at the Tories, and honed our contempt for the Liberals. Dreamt of their precarious alliance splintering. Woken trembling from the nightmare it may not.
Throughout, we’ve looked longingly toward the horizon, straining eye and ear for the clattering of hoof or glint of sun on armour heralding the approach of a new champion.
All breathless stuff. But, as it turned out, champions were in short supply. Jon Cruddas judged the crown would lay too heavy. Harriet Harman opted not to relinquish her role as loyal deputy. Old soldiers Jack Straw, Alastair Darling and Alan Johnson sheathed their swords.
In the end, four contenders emerged, with a fifth drafted in at the last minute. And at that moment, the parameters of the campaign should have been set. With all the serious candidates coming from the centre-right of the party, the process was geared to managerial selection, rather than ideological confrontation. That it became infinitely more complex was down to a fateful strategic choice made by one of the candidates, and the emotional status of a party experiencing the political equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In retrospect, the contest can be divided into three distinct periods. The Fight For Definition, David’s Consolidation and Ed’s Dash To The Left.
At the start, the size of the field meant lots of jostling, cursing and confusion. And that was just from the people trying to cover it. Paul Routledge can legitimately claim loyalty as the basis for his prediction of an Ed Balls victory. Paul Richards’ and James Macintyre’s argument that Diane Abbott would prevail is more difficult to rationalise. The Daily Mail’s can be filed under wishful thinking.
But during this early period each of the candidates took decisions that ultimately shaped the outcome of the race. Diane Abbott chose to play safe, pitching to her narrow constituency and going negative with a succession of jabs at her opponents. In the debates, audiences loved it. But she squandered the opportunity to broaden her appeal, and lost momentum.
Momentum was a political commodity that remained tantalisingly beyond Andy Burnham’s reach. Playing on his northern roots, he managed to build a base, but at the price of becoming ghettoised and one dimensional.
Ed Balls opted to ignore that he was in a race at all, tearing at the hapless Michael Gove and a shell-shocked government. This display of machismo was a sound tactic on paper, and won admirers. Yet his legacy as Brown’s chief pistolero, meant that he, more than anyone, needed to address questions of biography and process. While people were searching for the warmth and empathy of a retail politician, Ed Cojones was piling in with the knuckle duster.
All of which meant that the contest was quickly whittled down to two. David Miliband, who unveiled a classic pitch of experience and gravitas; the man who passed the Number 10 test, (can you see him physically standing on the threshold of Downing Street, delivering bland statements about “doing not talking” while clinging, limpet-like, to his stoic wife).
And Ed Miliband, who deployed the equally classical opening gambit of the ‘change candidate’. It’s easy to forget now, but in the beginning Ed’s was a standard “change versus more of the same” mantra. The military beret, Cuban cigars and intoxicating revolutionary rhetoric were nowhere to be seen. In the speech that launched his campaign, New Labour didn’t even warrant a mention.
It was David’s message that resonated. The party needed and wanted a winner. 15 years in opposition? Bugger that. We could be fighting a new election in six months. Modernisation and change? We’ve heard that somewhere before. David consolidated.
But then the trauma of our election defeat began to play tricks with the mind. The contest was turning into another coronation. We needed a debate. We had to find a way to bury Blairism for good.
Ed saw his opening. Diane was becalmed. A treacherous but passable leftward route to the summit lay open. He struck out.
On August 27, New Labour got it’s first proper kicking. It had fallen, “into the same trap as old Labour, clinging to old truths that had served their time”. “The New Labour modernisers”, were “the New Labour traditionalists” and “out of touch”. The pressure was ratcheted up, the attacks personalised. By 1 September it was time to “move on from the politicians of a previous generation”. By 10 September, it was all out war: “You know, New Labour was right for its time but we need to move on from New Labour, and all the attacks on me from the New Labour establishment have helped crystallise that message”.
The mood changed. The coronation was now a contest. Red Ed had Big Mo.
On Sunday, September 12, he had the lead. YouGov, placed him two points up. The MPs had rejected his message. But the ordinary members, and the unions, had swung behind him.
Victory was in his grasp. A political earthquake for the ages. And then…
There are three main reasons why David Miliband won. The first was Ed’s willingness so readily to trade electability for perceived ideological purity. The party’s loyalty has been sorely tested in the years since dawn broke over Festival Hall. But never again will we view power as an optional extra.
The second was David Miliband’s political courage. He was slow to respond to attempts to define him as Blair’s successor, and the sheer audacity of his brother’s turn left surprised him. But he never departed significantly from his core strategy, nor joined in a scorched earth assault on the party’s past. Time will grant Gordon Brown the political rehabilitation he deserves. But the price we paid for unpopular and indecisive leadership will not be forgotten.
The third reason lies in the resilience and vision of the party itself. The defeat hit hard. We should have had time to regroup and lick our wounds before launching into a leadership contest. But, in the end, we saw beyond the impact on ourselves; our guilt, envy, hatred, love, fear, hope. We looked outward. And saw that the flags of the old guard could simply be lowered. There was no need to tear them down. The Blairite and Brownite camps were now deserted. Their few remaining followers dispersed. Change could be embraced. It did not need to be enforced.
This Saturday, David Miliband will be elected. It will not mean that we are on the path back to power. Nor that we have fully come to terms with our election defeat. But we will have a new leader. And the right one. For the moment, that is enough.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut