Family drama grips Labour Party conference

September 28, 2010

BRITAIN-LABOUR/Just when the Labour Party thought it had got over the long feud between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, it has been gripped by an even more compelling drama worthy of prime-time TV – the tale of two brothers who reached the top of British politics only to see their ambitions collide.

Delegates at the Labour Party conference in Manchester are just getting over their surprise that Ed Miliband, 40, pipped his brother David, 45, to be Labour leader. David had long been favourite to win and Ed’s shock victory on Saturday brought gasps from delegates.

David Miliband had received the loudest applause when the leadership candidates strode into the hall to hear the results and there were no euphoric celebrations of Ed’s victory. That’s because many in the hall had not backed him.

To have knocked out the former foreign secretary long seen as the heir to Blair and Brown felt like regicide to some.

David Miliband’s wife Louise Shackelton was reported to be distraught at her husband’s narrow defeat, seeing Ed’s decision to stand against him as disloyal.

David Miliband won the support of more Labour activists and members of parliament but strong union backing saw Ed over the line, raising questions over whether he will steer the party leftwards.

Ed Miliband must rebuild Labour’s confidence after it lost the May election and will lead the opposition to the deep spending cuts proposed by the coalition government.

The sons of Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who fled to Britain in 1940 to escape the Nazis, Ed and David have lived and breathed politics from childhood at their north London home. Ed followed David to the same London school, the same Oxford college and into Labour party politics, parliament and the cabinet.

David Miliband was a better known politician but the desire for a break with the Blair and Brown years put Ed in the driving seat.

Though Ed Miliband denies being in the pocket of the unions, party grandees have given him coded warnings that he risks returning Labour to the wilderness of the 1980s unless he offers credible solutions on issues such as cutting the deficit and policies that appeal to middle Britain.

Some delegates may have wondered whether they had made the right decision when David Miliband gave what was widely seen as his best conference speech on Monday, calling on the party to unite behind Ed and appealing for an end to the cliques, factions and soap opera that weakened Labour during its final years in power.

It was the kind of speech a leader might have given and delegates will be looking to Ed to surpass it when he gives his first leader’s speech on Tuesday.

But there is little hope of an end to the soap opera while David and Ed occupy top Labour Party positions. If David stays on as shadow foreign secretary or shadow chancellor, the press will constantly be looking for divisions between him and his brother.

That is why so much hangs on David’s decision whether to stand in the shadow cabinet election. He is expected to wait until after his brother’s speech before he declares his intentions. Nominations for the shadow cabinet election close on Wednesday.

Having got over their initial surprise, delegates arriving at the conference on Tuesday stressed the need for Ed Miliband to unite the party behind him.

“There will be a need to focus away from the media attention with regard to the so-called charade over the Miliband family. I think there is far too much of a focus on that. I think what we need to do now is focus more on getting the party elected in five years time or whenever the general election will be,” said Andrew Bosmans, a Labour councillor from Doncaster.

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