Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 2010

Weird Labour Party conferences have been the norm for so long now I’ve stopped being surprised by them – almost. But this week’s has been weirder than any I can remember, even including last year’s, when Peter Mandelson was cheered to the rafters after making the campest speech delivered on a public platform in my adult lifetime.

Just about everything about Manchester has been bizarre from the very start, when Gordon Brown bade a belated farewell as a prelude to the announcement that Ed Miliband had won the leadership by the narrowest of margins from his brother David. Ed looked almost shell-shocked at his success, and the reaction of the conference was almost as surprised. OK, there had been a lot of talk about Ed picking up second-preference votes and maybe pipping David to the post – but hardly anyone really expected it to happen, let alone that he’d do it on the back of second and third preference votes by trade unionists in the affiliated organisations section of Labour’s electoral college.

That was a gift to the columnists in the right-wing press – which was then wrapped beautifully by none other than Charlie Whelan, outgoing chief fixer of the largest affiliated trade union, Unite, who boasted that Ed would not have won without his union’s efforts. Cue mad pieces all over the place claiming that “Red Ed” is a fundamentalist Marxist prisoner of the union barons, Neil Kinnock hailing Ed as his protégé, David Blunkett claiming that he is indecisive, lots of guff (not least from Ed himself) about how Labour has moved on a generation, David being a bit too sweetly generous in defeat.

And all this before Ed’s first leader’s speech on Tuesday, which was hailed by Edites as proof-positive that the new man was, er, a new man and condemned by anti-Edites as a reversion to the politics of class-envy…

It’s certainly been fun to watch, but, as Charlie Whelan would have put it in his pomp, what a load of bollocks so much of it has been.

Of course, the Labour leadership matters – and the closeness of the result would have been remarkable even if the two main protagonists had not been related. But for all the unmissable psychodrama of the past week, as it seems compulsory to describe it, not a lot has actually been resolved apart from the identity of Labour’s new leader.

Despite the months of leadership campaigning and thousands of words of analysis in every newspaper, Ed remains a largely unknown quantity. What he is not — contrary to the scare-mongering of the right-wing press and the wishful thinking of much of the traditional left — is either a throwback to the hard left of the 1970s and 1980s or a clean break with New Labour. For better or worse, and for all his protestations otherwise, nothing he has said or done has deviated much more than a millimetre from New Labour. What he turns out to be like as leader remains to be seen – but there’s no reason to expect anything other than a sensible centrist social democracy from him: a bit more adventurous than Blair or Brown on green issues or constitutional reform or financial regulation, perhaps, but otherwise very much in the same mould.

There’s also no reason to believe that Miliband will be the tool of the unions as leader. It’s true that Labour has been reliant on union funding for the past five years, and it’s true that the votes of trade unionists won him the top job. But there is no evidence that the unions are any more capable of “holding Labour to ransom” than at any time in the past 20 years – the current crop of union leaders is as unimpressive as could be imagined. And the trade unionists who voted for Ed were individuals voting as they chose, not union leaders wielding block votes for their unconsulted or phantom members.

The real worries about Ed are that he’s unknown to the majority of the public and inexperienced as a senior public politician. As he showed as a government minister and has shown again this week, he is a competent platform speaker and good on TV. But what is he going to be like confronting David Cameron at prime minister’s questions? And how is he going to handle the shadow cabinet? Most important, where is he going to take Labour politically in response to the Con-Lib government’s slash-and-burn cuts programme?

Manchester has given little indication of the answers to these questions, but they will come along frighteningly fast. Ed has no time to learn to swim: he has been thrown into the deep end. I reckon we’ll know by Xmas whether he’s got what it takes.

  • This went to press before David Miliband announced that he was withdrawing from front-line politics.
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