So, Ed Miliband has prevailed over his elder brother, David, in the UK’s Labour Party leadership election. This result certainly represents a ‘turn up for the books’ compared to the perceived wisdom at the start of the race. David Miliband was the strong favourite to win, with Ed Miliband a 10:1 outsider seen largely as placing a marker for the future. Miliband senior exuded a sense of entitlement to the leadership, with a strategy reliant on building the perception of unstoppable momentum (reminiscent of Hilary Clinton’s strategy for the Democrat nomination?). However, in the course of the campaign he was outmanoeuvred by his younger brother who showed a ruthless streak in playing to the audience that counted – trailing his brother until the final ‘head to head’ round, Ed Miliband’s eventual 1.3% margin of victory was achieved through the support of the trades unions’ section of the electoral college.
David Miliband had for some years been talked of as the future leader of his party. Indeed, Tony Blair apparently saw him as his own heir apparent and through much of Gordon Brown’s premiership, he seemed poised to assume the leadership mantle. He had several opportunities to challenge for the leadership, not just when Blair left office and Gordon Brown took over as Labour leader and Prime Minister unopposed, but also when several ‘coups’ were attempted against a hapless Brown. The most notable of these was when James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet in June 2009 calling on Brown to step down. The Labour Party’s collective conspiracy of cowardice, which had allowed Brown to become leader and Prime minister despite his manifest and widely understood unsuitability as a leader, ensured Brown survived. At each opportunity, positive and decisive action by David Miliband could have changed the status quo but he failed to seize the moment. Perhaps this was because he calculated that the outcome was not particularly certain in his favour: far more likely to win the Labour leadership following Brown’s departure in the aftermath of an Election defeat. To that extent, David Miliband lacked courage and decisiveness and today’s defeat is a bitter testament to that.
What has this to do with “leadership”? Certainly, effective leaders need to be able to weigh up the odds and choose the moment for action. After all, it is not leadership rather folly to engage in or commit others to rash or ill-considered action. However, effective leaders are best judged by how they act in adversity or uncertainty, when the outcome is unclear and the path ahead potentially perilous. Here, courage and decisiveness are essential tools, where vision and a sense of purpose prevail over sheer calculation and tactical assumptions. True leaders provide inspiration by such courage and decisiveness and this distinguishes them from ‘fair weather’ leaders who sound plausible when the going is good and whose authority rest on organisational or ‘tribal’ lines that can quickly evaporate. In many ways, leadership can be a lonely responsibility and both courage and decisiveness (judiciously used) are required, but by no means the only, parts of a leader’s make-up.
Whether or not Ed Miliband turns out to be an effective leader remains to be seen. What can be said is that he has already displayed some courage, mixed with astuteness and a level of ruthlessness. Many effective leaders of the past were required to draw on such qualities when the going got tough and their ‘followers’ who looked to them for direction were de-motivated, demoralised or rudderless.