The second coming of Ed Miliband

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Who will be the big beasts in what we assume will be the next Labour government? This question matters as the country tries to work out where power will lie in a Keir Starmer administration.

Some names are obvious. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, will be the most powerful minister and is already established as the colleague on whom Starmer leans most heavily. His two key officials, Morgan McSweeney, the campaign chief, and Sue Gray, chief of staff, will carry huge influence. Some point to Angela Rayner, the deputy leader and ally of the unions, or Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary. 

But there is one other, less-likely figure shaping up to be a major player in government — Ed Miliband. The former Labour leader, now shadow secretary of state for energy security and net zero, has been on a road to rehabilitation since losing the 2015 election in what felt like a very personal rejection. He was derided for standing against his older brother for the leadership, mocked for the (entirely normal) way in which he ate a bacon sandwich and blamed for the party rule changes which ushered in the Corbyn era.

More recently Miliband has had reverses under Starmer, notably the scaling back of his £28bn annual green investment plan (he had already been stripped of the business brief). Reeves’ ascent was seen as proof that Starmer had moved away from Miliband’s more leftwing agenda towards a more business-friendly stance. So it would be easy to assume he will not be a force. Yet the pressures of opposition are different to government. Miliband has several advantages which should make him far more influential and effective in office.

He owns one of Starmer’s five core missions — the clean energy commitment, which he sees as central to transforming the UK’s industrial economy.  

Above that, he has cabinet level experience in the same job. Labour insiders say he is the most advanced of the shadow cabinet in preparing for the first 100 days. He often stresses the lesson learnt working as an aide to Gordon Brown as chancellor: it is essential to arrive on day one with a clear plan of action. Effective ministers rise. One ally puts it simply: “Ed knows how government works and how Labour works.”

Among the first measures will be legislation to establish Great British Energy, the new publicly-owned clean energy company. Other plans include ending the effective moratorium on onshore wind farms and changing the “contracts for difference” pricing scheme to reward businesses that invest in areas which are losing traditional energy jobs. He will work closely with Reeves on her £7bn National Wealth Fund, investing in clean technologies. 

For Miliband this is not just a route to cheaper energy bills, but also, in his view, to putting the state back at the centre of industrial policy and building a new manufacturing base in green hydrogen, clean steel and carbon capture. It is this sort of talk that worries Labour’s more Blairite and market-orientated wing who see it as the thinking that lost in 2015.

He has already shown his ability to shape the Labour agenda. Two major green announcements made by Reeves at previous party conferences were ideas developed by Miliband — though she is now said by allies to regret accepting the £28bn plan without more due diligence. 

Though Starmer is less ideological and has moved on from their shared anti-Blairite instincts, Miliband is a long-standing friend and near North London neighbour. As a former leader, he’s a senior frontbencher Starmer can trust is not angling for his job.

Other former party leaders who have later taken roles in cabinet, including William Hague and then David Cameron as foreign secretary, have provided ballast to an inexperienced operation and a wise head that can moderate naive enthusiasms. Miliband, by contrast, remains self-consciously radical. He, rather than Rayner, is likely to emerge as the principal voice of the soft left in cabinet, the most influential figure urging Starmer to be go further and helping him retain the support of that wing of the party. 

This sets up the possibility that the two major poles of influence in cabinet will be Reeves and Miliband. Reeves is the more powerful and Miliband would lose a direct confrontation. As an ex-leader he also frowns on disloyalty. So instead we may see quiet tussles over Starmer’s political soul. Miliband could overplay his hand. Labour centrists worry about “business bashing” and can also foresee a future clash with McSweeney over potentially unpopular green initiatives. Even so he will appeal to a radical side of Starmer that is submerged but not sunk.

Starmer does not run a chumocracy. He has shown he is ruthless enough to demote friends, Miliband included. Yet one insider says a part of the reason for Starmer’s lengthy equivocation over ditching the £28bn plan was concern “not to let Ed down”.

Miliband’s own response to that disappointment was revealing. There were no tantrums or angry briefings. He endured the setback because he believes in his green mission, sees the prize of power and believes victory will release a more radical Starmer.

It remains to be seen if Starmer can be nudged out of his more pragmatic groove. But the battle for Labour’s soul will not end on election day.

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