Underrated: Ed Miliband

The much-ridiculed Labour leader may yet prove his detractors wrong by moving into Number 10 next month

UK Politics Underrated
Ed Miliband: His time may yet come (illustration by Michael Daley)

Whatever the other differences between Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson, his likely successor as leader of the Opposition if Labour wins in May, the two men are united in their ruthless quest for power—as David Miliband can testify. Ed says he stood for the leadership in 2010 so his party could “move on” from New Labour. But that’s only half the story: he had long harboured a burning ambition that came before even family.

His own party barely saw it coming. Having followed his older brother from Haverstock school, Hampstead, to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on to America for a brief spell and into Westminster as an adviser, the younger sibling used his considerable personal magnetism to work Labour back-benchers from the moment he became MP for Doncaster North in 2005. After 2007, Ed aimed to block David challenging Gordon Brown for the premiership because, as he put it privately, “You can’t have two Milibands in a row.” Thus he was the only senior Labour figure (not even Ed Balls did this) publicly to defend Brown at his most vulnerable point—after the Glasgow East by-election defeat to the SNP in July 2008—and in the same year is said to have pleaded with David not to challenge Brown after the resignation of James Purnell, allegedly promising him a clear run at the leadership after the general election.

In the event, and according to David without proper warning, Ed chose to sacrifice brotherly ties by committing political fratricide. During the campaign, he mercilessly exploited David’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, on which Ed, not then an MP, had not been forced to vote. After the first leadership hustings, David expressed astonishment and anger to a friend at the way Ed had “made it all about Iraq”. At the same event, Ed had authorised his supporters to hold “Ed speaks human” posters, seen as a dig at his brother’s more aloof manner.

If David no longer underestimated Ed, the media, as well as the Tories, still did. But as leader, Miliband impressed with a steeliness other leadership candidates would probably not have shown, primarily on Rupert Murdoch in the wake of the 2011 phone-hacking scandal. Much to his credit, Ed committed New Labour heresy by refusing to court a media empire that he has always recognised ultimately worked against his party’s interests. He surprised the Daily Mail, too, with a public attack on the paper in 2013 for calling his Marxist father Ralph “the man who hated Britain”. He consistently displayed calm under daily fire from a largely hostile press. And internally he resisted more conservative voices, principally that of Ed Balls, who called for a tougher line on immigration, a friendlier approach to the City, and a referendum on EU membership.

Which brings us to what might happen after polling day in the event of Ed Miliband forming a government. His refusal to rule out an informal agreement with the SNP is an indication that, as with the leadership, he will do almost anything to reach Number 10. Once there, he would be sympathetic to the SNP on fiscal policy but, according to a senior figure in his office, draw the line at giving away Trident, which Nicola Sturgeon, desperate for influence in a Labour-run administration, has anyway said is not a deal-breaker.

On membership of the EU, a Prime Minister Miliband would almost certainly not reverse his opposition to a referendum: he would see it as a potential threat to his premiership, especially if a new, charismatic Tory leader such as Boris Johnson opted to lead the withdrawalist cause in an attempt to bring down the Labour-led government. Pro-Europeanism is Ed’s only tie to big business. A referendum in which England voted to leave but Scotland voted to stay would enhance the SNP case for independence.

Alex Salmond has said independence remains his party’s priority despite the decisive referendum result against it last year. And it is true that Miliband—more unpopular even than the Tory leader north of the border—is a little naive about Scotland, taking time to learn the progressive case for the Union. It is just possible, then, that Salmond may at some stage outsmart Miliband and win another referendum in exchange for continuing support. Much more likely, however, is that Miliband will satisfy the SNP by using a constitutional convention to grant home rule with total tax-raising powers as part of an increasingly federal UK.

For years Ed Miliband was underrated by almost everyone including, fatefully, his own brother. There is truth in the claim he made to the Guardian recently: “I don’t think decency is a weakness . . . I’ve got strong convictions. That does go with the ability to . . . empathise, to reach out to people.” His brother’s supporters may disagree, but he can be very decent: for example, he has been known to pen lengthy handwritten letters to friends and even critics in need. He really does speak human. He is, though, ruthless about seizing power. What is less tested is how decisive he will be about using it. But having secured SNP support, there is a serious possibility that this quietly determined politician will hold down the job of prime minister for some years to come.