Dave reckons Mili-D’s the biggest threat: for the record, so do I

by Stephen Tall on August 28, 2010

David Cameron has ‘let it be known’ (ie, his press team briefed the Guardian) that shadow foreign secretary David Miliband “poses the greatest threat to the Conservative party of all the candidates in the Labour leadership contest”.

How to interpret this? Is Dave’s backing of David a cunning bluff: the Tory leader backing the most New Labour-identified candidate to put Labour members off backing him? Or could it be an even cunninger double bluff: the Tory leader, knowing his endorsement could be read as a bluff, backing the most media-awkward candidate in the hope Labour members will vote for Mili-D to spite the Tories? Or could it be the cunningest of triple bluffs: etc, etc?

On this occasion, I incline to the simplest reading: that David Miliband genuinely is indeed the Labour leader the Conservatives – and indeed the Lib Dems – should most fear. It’s not hard to see why.

Mili-D started with both the benefits and dis-benefits that comes with being the front-runner: on the plus side, his campaign is well-financed, enabling him to mail-shot Labour members early in the campaign; on the downside, he is first in the line of fire from his four opponents, and has to resist the urge to play a safety first campaign which allows him to be portrayed as complacent.

But Mili-D’s campaign has impressed me. It has been disciplined (contrast it with Brother Ed’s rather silly attempt to spread the rumour that Charles Kennedy was about to defect), but he has risked some original ideas – such as training 1,000 Labour activists to become ‘community leaders’ – and delivered a thoughtful keynote lecture arguing that Labour needs to re-discover its mutualist roots, rather than assuming the state must always be the answer to any societal problem.

Ed Miliband has proved the big disappointment of the campaign. Initially, his was the candidacy which most worried me from a selfish Lib Dem perspective; Lib Dem Voice readers also seemed to agree he was the candidate with the best chance to ‘do a Cameron’ – as brainy as his brother, but a lot less geeky-seeming.

Yet his campaign has been uninspiring, lacklustre and nervy. His ‘Letter to Lib Dems‘ highlights one of his strategic errors: addressing voters according to tribal labels, rather than opening a conversation with all voters (including those who voted Conservative this time). And it’s hard to see today’s attempted blackmail by the Mili-E-supporting GMB union – threatening to withdraw its party funding unless their anointed candidate wins – proving helpful to him: rather it helps define him as the puppet of the trade unions.

We need not detain ourselves with any of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham or Diane Abbott: each in their different ways would be dream Labour leaders from a narrow Lib Dem perspective. (There is, by the way, a rather fascinating Q&A with all the candidates in today’s Independent: it perhaps is more revealing than might have been expected. Mr Burnham clearly tries to present himself, as he has throughout the campaign, as Mr Ordinary: his gauche, jarring answers are anything but.)

A couple of months ago, I switched on the radio to hear a politician whose voice I coudn’t immediately place talking about Gaza: he was eloquent, sensible and had gravitas. I suddenly realised – to my genuine surprise – it was David Miliband. He’s no Clegg or Cameron, still less a Tony Blair: he is not a great communicator, and it is hard to see him connecting with Labour’s core voters. But out of all the candidates he is the one it’s possible to imagine standing on the steps of Number 10 as a credible Labour Prime Minister.

But is a new Prime Minister what Labour party members actually want to vote for at the moment? Or will they be more comfortable choosing the candidate – Mili-E, for example – who will make them feel great about remining in opposition? Their choice of leader is going to tell us a lot about Labour’s appetite for an early return to government.