Labour's Gamble

In the seven days since he was elected Labour leader Ed Miliband has not started growing a beard and shows no signs of wanting to turn Britain into Europe’s answer to Cuba.

But while he has chosen not to embrace the nickname “Red Ed” as a badge of pride, it is clear that left-leaning members of the party are delighted to have someone at the helm who has the same ideas about how best to steer a ship.

The election of Mr Miliband – in which the unions played a crucial and well-documented part – is fascinating because it represents a gamble which until recently constituted an act of political heresy.

Instead of racing to the supposed centre ground Labour have chosen someone they hope will shape public opinion and foment anger about the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. In essence, they hope he can drag Britain to the left and reap the electoral awards in 2015.

This is an order taller than the combined height of a basketball team. The old idea among politicos who were proud of their capacity to act on ruthless calculations was that you would do near-anything to get elected and then you had the chance to enact policies which would shape everyday life in the nation. In short, if you had to make a narrow choice between ideological purity and electability you would choose the latter each time.

Left-wing stalwart Dennis Skinner put this principle into action when he endorsed David Miliband instead of his brother, arguing: “The big question is who are the Tories afraid of?”

New Labour watched the Tories in opposition repeatedly install leaders who satisfied the party grassroots (the young William Hague) and social conservatives (Iain Duncan Smith) before opting for a safe pair of hands (Michael Howard) and then choosing a telegenic chap with a zeal to oust Labour from the centre ground and win the hearts of Middle Britain.

The irony of the pre-Cameron wilderness years is that the Tories forgot a classic right-wing doctrine fashioned by William F Buckley that one should always vote for the conservative who has the best chance of winning.

This is why so many of America’s Republican aristocrats were happy to support the star of the chimpanzee comedy Bedtime for Bonzo, Ronald Reagan, and erstwhile Texan playboy George W Bush.

Close to a decade ago, I asked a highly intelligent and ardent Republican why his party’s forces had swung behind Bush during the primaries. He smiled and shot back four words: “Because he can win.”

Labourites backed Tony Blair for a decade for the same reason. In Ed Miliband they elected a soul mate whose challenge now is to show he, too, can win.

A Saturday column