Labour conference, September 2010, Manchester. I was there myself; I remember it felt in a weird sort of way like Labour were still in power, such were the security arrangements, the general tension and build-up. This was mostly down to the leadership election. It was clear that the entire future of the Labour Party was to some degree up for grabs.
Many on the ground in Manchester (many who would not admit it now) thought it was a done deal for David. Who else could it be? The members wanted David; the MPs wanted David; would the unions really go against all of that and install Ed?
We now know the answer to that one. Ever since, a question has hung in the air, one more relevant as May 2015 approaches than ever: would Labour win the election in a few weeks’ time if the other Miliband had won that leadership contest in Manchester back in autumn 2010?
Many on the right of Labour pretty much assume this to be the case. But in doing so they are overestimating in many ways just what the elder Miliband might have brought to the table. Remember the Ed campaign slogan, “Ed speaks human?” That is a healthy reminder of just how wooden David could be a lot of the time. He also would have inherited the same basket case of a party, with factions trying to pull the party in several directions at once. The Scotland situation would almost certainly be as bad. At least Ed has done well in terms of keeping Labour a relatively tight ship for most of this parliament, at least given the circumstances.
The counter-arguments to all that go as follows: was all of Ed’s appeasement of the different splinters a good thing ultimately? Particularly as the cracks in the armour all seem to be appearing now, at the worst possible time? David as leader would have been a signal, right from the start, that the Labour Party had no intention of abandoning the centre ground to anyone.
So having thought about both sides of the debate, would Labour be ahead in the polls, north of 40%, on course to win a majority on May 7th if it was David Miliband leading them now as opposed to his younger brother? I think the answer is yes. Not because David is so unbelievably brilliant: he’s just better enough than Ed to have won more people over, and wouldn’t have taken such a drastic turn to the left that he would have then had to roll back from. The quasi-Blairite agenda probably would look more attractive to swing voters in the south of England, particularly when taken against a Tory party that scares people a little with their UKIP entreaties.
I suppose it’s all academic now. Other than to wonder: if Labour lose on May 7th and Ed steps down, will David will re-appear on the British political scene (via a handy by-election) and take the crown he missed out on in 2010? Given the paucity of talent on those shadow frontbenches, don’t count it out.