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Politics & Society

UK/ Miliband: Not Quite a New Generation

The differences between Ed Miliband, the new leader of the British Labour Party, and his brother David amount to more than a matter of brotherly rivalry. They go to the heart of the drama of modern politics with its reliance on trite sentiments and avoidance of responsibility  


There is something scary about the Miliband brothers and the fact that they have been allowed to fight between themselves for control of the British Labour Party. It is a little like the frisson we all felt a couple of years ago when we contemplated the idea that, if Hillary Clinton had beaten Obama, the United States might have had a 28 year stretch of presidencies drawn from just two families. With 100 million or so families to choose from, that seemed a bit unhealthy somehow.

So it is, on the face of things, with the Brothers Miliband. It is impossible to avoid the thought that the Milibands have risen to their present positions not in spite of being brothers but precisely because of their common origins and the nature of their relationship. Despite all the lovey-doviness over the weekend, it was obvious that their rivalry runs very deep, and, sure enough, it was a matter of hours before it began oozing out in David’s illuminating side-of-the-mouth rebuke to Harriet Harman (the Interim Leader of the Labour Party). Miliband was absolutely right in pointing out that Harman, by applauding his brother’s criticism of Tony Blair’s record on Iraq, was engaging in a denial of the responsibility which at the time she had accepted.

That episode also cut to the heart of the true distinction between the Milibands, which is not really about any specific policy or ideological issue, but about what power means and how it is to be exercised. Put simply, David is a true Blairite, coming at the end of a generation which approached the question of power with certain intentions and ideals but later absorbed many lessons about the limits of its own prescriptions. An honest politician who is prepared to bear the burden of the responsibilities he takes on, he finds himself out of step with his times. His retreat to the backbenches therefore says more about his times than it says about him.

From a distance, and on his own assurances, Ed Miliband’s accession to the Labour leadership betokens the arrival of a new generation. But perhaps the reason he states this so repeatedly is that he suspects it isn’t true.

Really, he has been elected not on account of any great qualities of his own but because he is Not David. He is the revenge of the trade union movement for the sins of Blairism: New Labour, Clause Four, Alastair Campbell and the rest of it. He is the creature of forces which sat sullenly through the Blair years, waiting for their opportunity to strike back. And now, availing of the Miliband family romance, they have stuck with a vengeance.