Ed Miliband is a nice guy. That seems to be a settled issue and isn’t really up for debate. Whatever people say about him – and over the past two years, people have said plenty – I’ve seen few suggest that he’s a nasty piece of work. I’ve seen infinitely more pople say he’d be better off if he was a nasty piece of work.
But of course there is another side to Ed Miliband. Not seen often (enough?) but one that emerges, from time to time.
Ed Miliband has a ruthless streak.
The two best examples are already well known. He stood against his brother for leader of the party. A decision that was ruthless, and took the party some time to get over. It may take the family many more years still. Then, on the same day that David stood down from frontline politics, Miliband pulled long standing Chief Whip Nick Brown to one side, and told him he wasn’t having the job anymore. The metaphorical revolver was handed over, and Brown was told to remove himself from the running. Miliband and Brown had known each other for years. Another ruthless act.
Yesterday I was sat in the same press room in Manchester where I heard, two years ago, about David Miliband stepping down, and Nick Brown being bumped off. I wasn’t going to bring up those memories, until I read this post by Damian McBride this morning, on “the election that never was”. The whole thing has been pored over by journalists and politicians alike today, but this section stood out to me:
“When [Ed Miliband] called me that Sunday, I told him what a joke it was that I was being accused of briefing against him and others. “But where’s it all coming from, Damian?” he said. “They’ve got all these details of the meetings we had; that must have come from you.” “Of course that stuff’s from me”, I said, “that’s just the colour – that’s harmless, but they’re accusing me of doing the lines blaming you and Douglas and Spencer for the whole thing.” “Well where’s all that coming from, Damian?”
His voice and tone reminded me eerily of Hal the computer in the film 2001. “I don’t know, but it’s not from me – I’d never brief against you.” “I don’t believe you, Damian” he said, “I think you’re lying.” It felt like an ice cold razor had been dragged down my spine. “Ed, for God’s sake, don’t say that. I’d never brief against you.” “That’s the trouble, Damian, I don’t believe that’s true. I think you’re lying.” “Stop saying that, Ed. You can’t accuse me of lying. I’m not going to have that.” “I can’t help it, Damian, I think you’re a liar.” “If you keep saying that, you know we’re finished, I’m not having that.” “I don’t care, Damian, I think we are finished.””
Decision made. Relationship terminated. Ruthless.
The question is, of course, where is this ruthless Ed Miliband now? Shadow cabinet members always talk gushingly about his attempts to encourage debate and consensus in meetings. In his dealings with the party more broadly there have been few attempts at what you might call “exercise in control” politics. We’re a long way from command and control.
Yet Miliband is still leading his party, but he’s trying to do so in a completely different way. He’s his own outrider at times (a terrifying prospect) but on several notable occasions he’s made it work. On phone hacking and banking he was decisive, although the accusation has often been that when it comes to personal relationships he isn’t capable of that kind of decisive – ruthless – politics. Maybe he once was, but since he became leader…not so much?
Tell that to those who have been discarded as shadow ministers and shadow cabinet members. Whilst David Cameron is lampooned – rightly – for his inability to sack anyone, Ed Miliband doesn’t seem similarly encumbered. Several of those who got the chop from Miliband in 2011 had only been at the top table for a year before being cast aside. There’s a ruthlessness there but for whatever reason it isn’t breaking through into the public consciousness. It doesn’t sit well with how Miliband is perceived. The ruthless geek doesn’t seem right, does it? But if he becomes Prime Minister – expect to see more of it.
And yet a geek he is. I almost wonder if McBride used the HAL reference deliberately. There’s something about Miliband’s tone of voice that is almost reminiscent of the spooky, thoughtful computer in Kubrick’s 2001. Cold and robotic, yes, but also strangely human. This was a reference that geeks were intended to get. Geeks like Ed Miliband. Ruthless geeks.