Five things we’ve learnt about Ed

Sunder Katwala

Ed by Mehdi and James.jpgBy Sunder Katwala / @nextleft

I have been reading “Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour leader”, the biography of Ed Miliband, by Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre, which is published today.

Many Next Left readers will no doubt want to get hold of the book itself, published by Biteback.

There has been quite a lot of press coverage of the book. Mail on Sunday extracts last weekend focused very much on the Miliband v Miliband psychodrama, as most discussion of the book doubtless will. The Independent has picked up on the book’s account of Ed Miliband’s decision to run, including Neil Kinnock going to see Ed Miliband in February 2011 to persuade him to run for leader. I will hold off on my overall take, as I am writing a review of the book for the weekend, but here are a few of the intriguing but less headline-grabbing snippets of new information which caught my eye.
1. Narrowing the gap matters: Blair on Beckham as a teaching aide

Ed Miliband took a year out at Harvard in 2002, frustrated by the limits of his influence as a Treasury adviser, but not sure whether to go into Parliament, or to do something else, such as academia or applying to run the ippr think-tank.

Miliband taught a course on ‘the politics of social justice’ – which involved using Tony Blair, Jeremy Paxman and David Beckham as a teaching aide:

“Ed used his course to ask questions about a subject that he cared deeply about: inequality. Does it matter? Should it matter? How should it be defined? ‘He didn’t preach to the student but given what they were reading the one thing the course would do is give the students reasons for why inequality mattered, says Martin O’Neill’ [an academic colleague].”

“In the very first class of his course, Ed played a video to his students of the famous BBC Newsnight interview with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 2001 General Election. Presenter Jeremy Paxman had asked the then Prime Minister six times whether the gap between rich and poor mattered – but, each time, to no avail. Blair’s response was typically evasive: ‘It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”.”

2. Ed was against the Iraq war at the time in 2003

One of the challenges to Ed Miliband during the leadership campaign was that he claimed to have been against the Iraq war in 2003, but hadn’t told anybody at the time. The book conclusively documents examples of his expressing his private opposition to the war, including to those at Harvard with no particular stake or axe to grind in British politics, though he was unwilling to criticise his government publicly. Nor did this disagreement prevent Miliband returning from Harvard to work for Brown at the Treasury in February 2004.

The authors report that Ed Miliband, in a call from Harvard, advised Gordon Brown to break with Blair over Iraq:

“The Chancellor, sitting at his desk, could be heard remonstrating with his adviser on the phone: ‘Ed, you’ve got to understand that we can not break with the Americans’.”

“The call went on for several minutes. Ed urged Brown to give Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors more time to finish their work. Use your influence with Blair, he urged. Try and delay the military action. If you resign, suggested Ed to Brown, its over'”

The Mail on Sunday serialisation has already reported some of the details of the book’s account of how this call led to Brown summoning his closest aides to discuss Ed Miliband’s view, though Ed Balls I unimpressed: “He told Gordon that it was easy for Ed Miliband, swanning off to America, but the rest of us have to deal with this here and now”.

That Ed Miliband didn’t seek to challenge his opponents over this and other evidence of his views in 2003 during the campaign itself suggests that he felt he had done enough to identify at the outset Iraq as an issue where Labour should learn lessons from mistakes in government, but did not then intend to escalate an argument between the candidates after this.

3. The blue Labour film club: how Ed fell out with Jon

Had six MPs switched a first or second preference to David Miliband, then the leadership election result would have been different. The book suggests that Ed Miliband was considerably effective in one-to-one meetings with Labour MPs than his rivals, and paid much more attention to individual members of the PLP than his brother.

It worked well – but not always.

Ed Miliband had particularly difficulty making a connection with influential backbencher Jon Cruddas, who found the idea of a contest between brothers incomprehensible and at odds with the ‘new currency of politics around issues of identity, nationhood, belonging and family’.

Cruddas also failed to recruit Miliband to the Blue Labour film club:

“Relations between Ed and Cruddas had broken down ahead of the General Election. The two men met in secret at Ed’s office at DECC, organised by Compass Chair Neal Lawson, in the spring of 2010. Cruddas had asked Ed to watch the award-winning 2009 film Fish Tank, which offers a bleak glimpse of working-class life on a scruffy Essex housing estate, but Ed had to admit in the meeting that he’d switched it off halfway through because he found it ‘too depressing’. ‘That pissed me off’, admits Cruddas. ‘It was symptomatic of a problem inside of Labour – what’s inside that film is exactly what we as a party need to be discussing'”

“The half an hour meeting went downhill from there. Cruddas was sullen and belligerent to the point of rudeness; Ed was quiet, reserved and unwilling to engage. “It was an unmitigated disaster”, said Lawson.”

Cruddas later says he is “much more impressed with him as leader than I thought I would be”, after the backbencher’s invitation to the leader to visit the porters at Billingsgate Fish Market goes much better.

4. Tom Watson gave Ed the line that upset Peter Mandelson

Peter Mandelson said that he felt ‘hurt’ by Ed Miliband’s remarks about him during the first hustings of the leadership contest, which suggested he should be ‘packed off rather prematurely to an old people’s home’. The line was premeditated – but it was not Miliband’s but Tom Watson’s, as Hasan and MacIntyre report:

“He [Ed Miliband] had some help. Tom Watson, the backbench Labour MP and Balls allyhad bumped into Ed before the hustings. ‘Paul Kenny [the GMB general secretary] says they’re going to ask all the candidates whether or not they plan to bring back Peter Mandelson’, he warned Ed. ‘What should I say?’ asked the younger Miliband. ‘Say you believe in dignity in retirement’ replied Watson with a chuckle’.”

That Tom Watson nominated and voted for Ed Balls, casting a second preference for Ed Miliband, may make it curious that he tipped off Ed Miliband about the question, though the answer may just be that he happened to bump into him.

5. Ed was sure he’d won the leadership election by the time of the result

On the basis of Parliamentary preferences, the Ed Miliband team was confident they had edged the leadership contest as the Labour party headed to Manchester. Ed Miliband was perhaps more confident than most of his own team.

However, the campaign had expected to do better on 1st preferences from party members, and so to win a plurality of the party members’ vote. The book shows how the campaign spotted the implications of the split electoral college more quickly than BBC political editor Nick Robinson:

“The first round of results were projected onto a screen and read out, showing a total percentage of 37.78 for David and 34.33 for Ed, with the membership section, judged at this point by both camps as key, broken down as 13.9 for David and 10.5 for Ed …. In an embarrassing – if unusual – error of judgement, the respected BBC political editor Nick Robinson predicted that David had won. Marcus Roberts, Ed’s director of field operations, was sharper. The moment the results of the first round flashed up on screen, he scribbled a line on a piece of paper and passed it down the line of colleagues sitting next to him. It read: ‘We’ve won, but without the members. Sorry’.”

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