Saturday, June 04, 2011

Does Ed need David back like a hole in the head?

With Labour leading in the opinion polls and the relationship between the Coalition partners growing increasingly fractious, it would be easy to make the assumption that these are good days for Ed Miliband.

And doubtless on a personal level they are, what with him having finally tied the knot with long-standing partner Justine at a ceremony in Nottinghamshire last week.

But as he returns from his short honeymoon this weekend, I suspect that Ed himself will be feeling rather less complacent about his party's prospects.

Any serious analysis of Labour's performance in last month's local and devolved elections suggests it is currently a long way away from being in a position to win power again.

Sure, the party did well in its Northern heartlands, recapturing big city councils like Newcastle after the Lib Dem interregnum – but it made few inroads in the Southern marginals it needs to win back from the Tories.

And as for Scotland and the party's defeat to Alex Salmond's resurgent SNP….well, the less said the better.

One idea increasingly doing the rounds at present is that what Ed really needs, apart from the operation on his adenoids that is due later this summer, is his brother David back on the front bench.

But while the return of the South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary would certainly make the Shadow Cabinet look more like a government-in-waiting, I wonder if it might ultimately cause more problems than it would solve.

The biggest and most obvious danger would be that David's return in a senior role would invite comparisons between he and his younger brother which would be less-than-flattering to the latter.

Ed Miliband is already being outshone by his namesake Ed Balls, who has taken to the job of opposition like the proverbial duck to water.

But the Shadow Chancellor and Coalition-basher-in-chief is not even popular within his own party, let alone with the wider public, and as such represents no real threat to his leader.

The elder Miliband is a different matter. Not only did a significant number of Shadow Cabinet members support him for the top job, a majority of Labour members did too.

If history is any guide, neither of the Miliband brothers will be the one to lead Labour back to the promised land.

Whenever the party has lost power after a long period in government, it has usually taken several goes before alighting on a leader capable of persuading the electorate to entrust it with power again.

After the fall of the Attlee government in 1951, it took the party 12 years before it found such a leader in Harold Wilson. And after 1979, it had a 15-year wait before Tony Blair came along.

Some think Labour's next Prime Minister is likely to come from the 2010 intake - with Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna the names most frequently mentioned - although for my part I wouldn't write off class of '97 alumnus Yvette Cooper just yet.

Either way, if David Miliband isn't going to come back onto the front bench, it calls into question why he is still in the House of Commons at all.

For all his genuinely heartfelt commitment to the people of South Shields, he is a big politician who demands a big stage for his next political role.

The trouble is that, whether David likes it or not, there are still a lot of people around who would dearly like his next role to be that of leader of the Labour Party in his brother's stead.

And so long as that remains the case, the odds must be on him staying where he is.

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