It was billed as the fight that would determine the future of the British left, a struggle for the soul of the Labour Party. Hammered in the polls in May, Labour announced a four-month campaign to decide on Gordon Brown’s successor. The idea was to allow time not just for a change of leader but for a wide-ranging debate on the party’s core beliefs, direction and long-term goals. With dozens of hustings around the country, candidates would have a chance to express their vision for Labour and for Britain beyond the economic crisis, reverse the decline of a party that hemorrhaged nearly two-thirds of its membership in government and rebuild the dream of a progressive majority.
Instead, the campaign has been an illustration of the narcissism of small differences, as four white men in their 40s—all Oxbridge-educated career politicians, all former government ministers—have struggled to distinguish themselves from one another, with one black woman (also a career politician and a Cambridge graduate) playing the rebel’s role. After thirteen years in office, it is almost impossible to talk about the party’s future without rehashing the past—yet it is vital to avoid suicidal recriminations. New Labour’s ghost is always present at the feast; all the candidates agree that it must be exorcised. But the deeper argument about what that might mean—a return to socialist roots, a continued embrace of poll-led policies and market-led reforms, or some as yet unarticulated solution—has been all but sublimated into a contest between two men whose views might look quite similar even if they didn’t happen to be brothers.
The ballots that went out to Labour Party members in September list five names: Diane Abbott (the first black woman elected to Parliament, and an outspoken opponent of Blairism and the Iraq War but with little support from Labour branches outside London), Ed Balls (former chief adviser to the treasury, education minister and Gordon Brown’s closest lieutenant), Andy Burnham (former minister for culture, media and sport and the only candidate with roots in the white working class) and the Miliband brothers. The sons of Marxist economist Ralph Miliband both came of age inside New Labour—David (the elder) as head of Tony Blair’s policy unit, Ed as a key adviser to Gordon Brown—and for much of their careers they have lived and worked literally next door to each other. Both were elected to Parliament from safe Labour seats and quickly promoted to cabinet. David was Blair’s environment secretary; Ed headed Brown’s new department of energy and climate change. David, nicknamed "Brains" for his intellectual prowess and geeky demeanor, rose to become Brown’s foreign secretary and chief potential rival; Ed, a more affable figure, stayed in his brother’s shadow even as Blair’s opponents began to adopt him as their champion, sporting buttons that read My Favourite Miliband Is Ed. Until, that is, he joined the leadership race.
This was never going to be an equal contest. Burnham and Abbott struggled to gain enough nominations from fellow MPs to qualify, with Abbott succeeding only when David Miliband urged his supporters to back her candidacy. (The party leader is chosen by a three-part electorate, with an equal say going to MPs, Labour members and members of "affiliated organizations," mostly trade unions.) And though Balls has been most effective in opposing the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government, particularly on the folly of imposing cuts in a recession, his candidacy, like Burnham’s, was rendered toxic to many activists by his eagerness to raise the issue of immigration after May’s election disaster. But any candidate would have had a tough time gaining a hearing from a press corps in thrall to the prospect of fraternal strife. We’ve seen story after story in which David, the cerebral "heir to Blair," says that "brotherly love is more important than politics," while Ed, once seen as the shy, less polished Brownite, replies that "David is my best friend in all the world." The latest polls show Ed, who started out a distant third behind front-runner David and Balls, now snapping at his brother’s heels.