Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The two Eds struggle

There are always tensions at the top. Different agendas can come into conflict. When they do, it can be messy. Divided loyalties, and all that. I am speaking of the tensions between Ed Miliband and Ed Miliband, the trouble it has led to in Falkirk, and how party reform will be decided.

The first Ed Miliband you know well. He is an idealistic visionary with bold plans for a new politics and a new society. He is inspired by Robert F Kennedy and imbues his politics with a belief in radical reform and the moral purpose of politics.

This Ed Miliband is disdainful of the merely pragmatic, loathes machine politics, fundraising and the mundanity of modern politics. His favourite phrase is telling: ‘That is just’ – pause for a beat, heavy emphasis – ‘wrong.’ This is the Ed Miliband of Arnie Graf, of Marc Stears, of endless reading lists of social democratic philosophers. This Ed Miliband is half Camelot, half senior common room.

The other Ed Miliband does not get the same public attention. This Ed Miliband worked for a decade for Gordon Brown, right at the heart of a ruthlessly pragmatic political machine. This Ed Miliband was raised up by the patronage of powerful men, and won his leadership because he convinced a select group of union chiefs that he was their last best hope.

This Ed Miliband turned that backing into the practical steps needed to win a hard-fought election. This Ed Miliband promoted soppy idealists like Tom Watson, Alicia Kennedy and Michael Dugher to key roles, knowing they were steeped in the ways of ‘managing’ the party and the union movement. This Ed Miliband has a political operation identical to Gordon Brown’s save for a few in disgrace.

All politicians have their different sides. Most know the struggle between the inner idealist and the inner pragmatist. With Miliband, the tension can be particularly acute. It is a tribute to his skill as a politician that he is both Labour’s leading voice against machine politics and the biggest beneficiary of that same machine.

When the crisis in Falkirk burst onto the political scene, Ed Miliband the idealist was in the ascendant. Idealist Ed Miliband was outraged by what he heard, and saw in Falkirk a chance to end machine politics, an opportunity to recast the relationship with the unions, a way to show the public that he was a different sort of politician. He seized that chance, and demanded the party follow.

Yet in the months before this, a more pragmatic approach had dominated. A series of key appointments had indicated cooperation, not confrontation. When it was clear that the Unite political strategy included a desire to recruit members to the party in key seats, this was accommodated, not rejected. As long as the rules were precisely observed, all would be accepted.

So when it came to a reckoning over whether the rules had been observed or not, Unite could claim that it had done nothing in Falkirk that it had not signalled to Labour’s top team.

In this light, you can understand why it felt it had been cut adrift unfairly. After all, had the party really objected to the recruitment of members? Had the party not known about Unite’s political strategy? Had the party not processed the applications? Had the leader’s office not known what the union’s aims for greater representation were?

The party leader would not know the details of a single selection, but any pragmatist in his office would understand the value of a working relationship with Unite was high.

All of these issues highlight the tension between the idealist and the pragmatist in Labour’s leader. The idealist genuinely dislikes machine politics. The pragmatist knows that as long as it exists it will be used. It is just whether the machine is for you or against you.

With the immediate crisis collapsed, calls for further enquires will be pragmatically ignored. The political need is to draw attention away from the entrails of what exactly happened, which like most politics will be murky and complex, and onto the wider canvas of party reform.

In setting this agenda over the summer, the idealism of Miliband dominated. In delivering a package of change, it will be the pragmatist who decides what victory will mean. Miliband knows that if he pushes the core union general secretaries too far there is a good chance they will reject some, or all, of his proposed reforms to the party. Perhaps then, at the National Executive Committee, or in some quiet compositing room, a deal will be offered to avoid such a situation.

Miliband will get the chance for a victory that is not quite a triumph. Single member affiliation yes, but little change beyond this – to the NEC, or to the voting structure at conference, or to the selections process. Take this, declare victory and move on, will be the temptation.

The idealist will know this would represent a shift of little power. The pragmatist will know it would secure peace, could be sold as a victory, and would prevent a damaging rupture. He might also calculate that such a deal would be inherently unstable, and give him another chance later on.

It would be easy to applaud idealistic Ed Miliband and condemn pragmatic Ed Miliband. But both aspects of his character will be required to change the way the party works.

How Miliband balances these will decide the shape of the wider party, just as it has decided the end result of Falkirk. Whatever the absurdities of how we got there, Falkirk will soon select a candidate free of the machine that appeared certain to dominate the selection. Whether that is a sufficient victory is for others to decide.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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1 comment

  • “When it was clear that the Unite political strategy included a desire to recruit members to the party in key seats, this was accommodated, not rejected.”

    Hmm, that scheme that facilitated it was introduced by Tony Blair though?

    Before Falkirk this was basically not seen as an issue.

    As a side point, it’s definitely not an issue that opt ins and opt outs will actually address either?

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