I was obviously pleased, but also relieved, to hear Ed Miliband say he personally would be voting ‘Yes’ in the fairer votes referendum in May.
You could say he could ill have afforded not to, after the way he was elected. If you’d been rescued off a mountain top by a helicopter, it wouldn’t look good if you then railed against helicopters in your first statement after being rescued, would it! Or if you railed against your country’s diplomats after they’d got you out of jail in a tin-pot dictatorship.
Ed Miliband came second in most rounds of the Labour leadership election, but when all the second preferences were counted, he won, because he had the greater all-round support of the three constituencies that make up the Labour party: members, MPs and trade unions.
What would now be appropriate is for the new Labour leader to go beyond what he would do ‘personally’ and recommend a ‘Yes’ vote to his party. He has clearly made certain noises that distance himself from the New Labour years – including recognising what we have said all along about the Iraq war – but how modern is he really?
Is he willing to take the plunge and say a modern Labour prime minister either has to be elected by an absolute majority of the voters, or has to govern in coalition with another party? Because that’s what a truly modern party leader must surely now recognise.
This is why it doesn’t worry me whether Miliband takes Labour to the left or not (whatever ‘left’ means in this politically post-modern era). In fact I’d be quite happy if he did, and not for any reasons to do with electoral arithmetic.
To me – and I’m speaking more as a democrat than a Liberal Democrat here – a modern electoral system needs to have three main parties: a party fundamentally representing the haves, a party fighting for the have-nots, and a free-thinking party not beholden to any group of people which can bring ideas to the political table that the other two parties can’t. If there are a number of fringe parties contributing ideas (like the Greens and Ukip), fair enough, but the basic system revolves around those three entities.
It means the political system would always be open to Lab-Lib, Con-Lib and even Lab-Con coalitions (the latter a fairly unlikely scenario but the ultimate guard against the Lib Dems becoming too arrogant). It’s worked that way in numerous other developed nations, including some with economies much more successful than ours has been.
Will Ed Miliband be up to this modern role? His initial party conference speech suggests he might. His non-Labour political idols were all Liberals, and while he attacked the Lib Dems in the campaign, he declined to go for the cheap cheer of attacking us in his leader’s speech. It will be interesting to see how Labour develops under him.
On that subject, an afterthought. As the elder of two siblings, my heart genuinely feels for David Miliband, and I think he’s done the right thing by taking a break from front-line politics. But I don’t think he should go too far.
While I believe Labour has got the leader it really wanted (thanks to a voting system that allows for second preferences), I can’t help wondering whether, in 18 months, Ed will have run out of steam and become his party’s Iain Duncan Smith – a fundamentally decent and well motivated guy who just doesn’t connect with voters. It’s just a hunch, and I may be wrong, but we may not have seen the last of the elder Miliband in the Labour leadership.