It is six o’clock on a Wednesday evening in north London, and despite the rush-hour traffic, the streets around the Edgware Road subway station are nearly deserted as people seek shelter from a cold and miserable rain. Inside the King Solomon Academy, a non-denominational neighbourhood school, one of two men closing in on the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party is making his pitch to the 200 people who have packed the school’s auditorium.
Five months ago, David Miliband was foreign secretary in then-prime minister Gordon Brown’s cabinet. Now he, like the rest of the Labour Party, is out of power and facing a long road to get it back. Labour earned its second-lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage in the May election, and in David Cameron it confronts a popular prime minister who leads an unexpectedly functional coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party.
It’s a big hill to climb, and in person Miliband is hardly the sort of figure to inspire dizzying optimism among his supporters. At 45, he’s young as politicians go, tall and handsome. But he’s also a stiff and methodical speaker. At the King Solomon Academy, he stands behind a podium, gripping the lectern. He wears a purple tie with a thin knot and rocks gently from side to side as he talks.
Miliband begins by thanking his audience for their “friendship and comradeship.” It’s an odd choice of words. Miliband cut his political teeth crafting policy for Tony Blair’s “New Labour” movement, which sought to expand Labour’s support beyond its blue-collar roots to the middle classes—people who don’t often call each other “comrade.”
Tony Blair has since fallen out of favour with much of the Labour Party—his three consecutive majority governments be damned—but many of David Miliband’s supporters see him as someone who can similarly stretch the party’s support base. “I’m not making my decision on minor policy nuances,” David Browne, a north London Labour councillor at the Miliband event, says. “I’m basing it on who is the best person for the job. The job is to be prime minister, not just Labour leader.”
Miliband works on this theme in his speech. “We have spent too much time looking inwards and backwards and not enough time looking forwards and outwards for new ideas and for a new relationship with voters,” he says. “To win again we need working-class voters, middle-class voters, Conservative voters, Liberal Democrats and non-voters, as we drive the Tories out of power.”
Why, then, this talk about comradeship? It’s because David is threatened on his left flank by the second man with a chance to win the Labour leadership: Ed Miliband, his brother.
After years watching former friends Tony Blair and Gordon Brown divide their party, Labour has now taken sibling rivalry from the metaphoric to the literal. “You have to feel that it’s a continuation of some sort of terrible fight they had as kids,” says Simon Hoggart, parliamentary sketch writer for the Guardian newspaper, in an interview with Maclean’s. “Maybe one took the other’s wind-up car and broke it.”
Ed Miliband represents Labour’s historic base. He argues Labour did not lose in May because they failed to connect with centrist voters, but because their traditional supporters abandoned them. Labour needs to bring back voters who left the party because they believe it has become too arrogant, Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP and Ed’s campaign agent, tells Maclean’s. “What we can’t do is dust off the 1997 manual,” he adds, referring to Tony Blair’s first election manifesto, which, actually, David Miliband wrote.
Two days after his brother spoke to supporters at the King Solomon Academy, Ed Miliband holds a question-and-answer session in a university neighbourhood of south London. David’s handlers are young, but the youth surrounding Ed is even more pronounced. He’s popular with students. Several of the more photogenic among them are ushered to stand behind Ed, where television journalists filming the event will see them.
“We’ve lost our way ideologically as a party,” Ed says in a warm-up speech. “New Labour was right for its time, but its time has gone. New Labour became trapped by the ghosts of the 1980s in its quest not to look anti-business. Labour cannot win with just the working-class vote—New Labour was right about that—but nor can we take it for granted.”
Ed speaks confidently without notes or a podium. He stands in the middle of the room with his audience in a circle around him. He’s five years younger than his brother and has a boyish face that looks as if there is still baby fat in its rounded cheeks. David’s dark hair has a patch of bristly grey at the top of his forehead. Ed’s is brown throughout. It doesn’t suggest much in the way of gravitas. Ed served in cabinet for three years, most recently as secretary of state for energy and climate change—not an insignificant post, but one that lacks the heft of his brother’s three-year stint as foreign secretary.
And yet for all his youthful enthusiasm, Ed reminds Labour supporters of what they believed in before Tony Blair came along and changed everything. “He’s more in touch with the left of the party, and when I say left, I mean grassroots,” says Jay Asher, a student at Ed’s question-and-answer session. Given that the Labour Party spent most of the two decades before Blair getting stomped on by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, it’s curious why Ed’s back-to-our-roots message should resonate, but it does. Polls have the two brothers virtually tied.
The winner will be decided by votes cast by Labour members of the House of Commons and the European Parliament, individual members of the party, and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. The party’s voting system means that should one candidate fail to win an outright majority, the contest may go to the candidate voters pick as their second choice. There are three other candidates besides Ed and David. None has a chance at winning, but their supporters are thought to favour Ed over David, and this could mean the difference.
Whoever wins faces a massive challenge. Neither has David Cameron’s charisma. “One of the ironies of their whole period in office is that Labour did not produce a new leader,” says John Curtice, a politics professor at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, MPs advanced because they were policy wonks, not because they were skilled political operators, he says. It’s why Gordon Brown survived so long. And while the Conservative-led coalition is imposing deep cuts to government spending, for now there is a sense among Britons that such moves are necessary.
Eventually, though, the cuts will hurt—and mostly the less wealthy. “In Parliament, [Labour is] going to have to expose that,” says Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think tank at the London School of Economics. “And yet by doing that they will be saying to the country as a whole: ‘Look at us. We’ve gone back to being that whole class-war party that stands up for the weakest and the poorest and the working classes.’ Unfortunately, the good people of Middle England don’t think like that.”
It’s likely both brothers would tilt toward the centre should they win the party’s leadership. Candidates often play to their party’s base before softening their stance when courting the rest of the country. “Once they get free of the election, they’ll all be modern—even if they don’t call it New—Labour leaders,” says Tony Travers, a political analyst at the LSE.
Still, the brothers represent distinct streams within the Labour Party. David was an architect of the Labour Party’s “third way” that tried to blend liberal economic policies with more traditionally leftist social ones. It won the party three elections. He’s not going to abandon it now. Ed rejects New Labour’s heritage. He hopes to expand the party’s reach on the left, rather than the right. It’s a strategy that is less likely to peel off support from the Tories. But national votes in Britain are split three ways, and Ed may win the support of disaffected Liberal Democrats.
Ballots were sent to Labour voters earlier this month. Results will be announced this Saturday, Sept. 25.