Friday, 1 October 2010

Did we do well?

So, are we happy with the way the Miliband business turned out? As journalists, I mean.

Job well done? Our politics better as a result of the way we, as a whole, scrutinised the Labour leadership contest, the vote and David Miliband's self-exile to the back benches?

I don't mean, of course, are we happy with the outcome of the contest itself. Nor whether David rather than Ed should have won or "really" won. Nor whether one would be better at leading HM Opposition than the other.

No, it's more about the strength of adversarial politics which tend to work best when there's talented, eloquent advocacy emanating from the opposition benches, irrespective of which party's sitting on them. And the belief that, whichever party you support, politics is better conducted with the opposition's strongest and most experienced performers sitting at the front rather than the back.

So it's about whether we're happy that it was the failings, the limited framing of much of our journalism rather than any reality that made it inevitable that David would not be able to join Ed's shadow cabinet.

Genuine differences

It's true that there were and are genuine differences between the new Labour leader and his brother. Ed's unequivocal disowning of the Iraq war. The pace of deficit reduction.Tuition fees.

And it's true - as the BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reported - that David thought that, to some extent, Ed's overall victory was compromised by his defeat in two of the three sections of the electoral college. (Nick Robinson's work, incidentally, was an egregious exception to this broad winge.)

We will never know whether any of these genuine differences were in and of themselves insurmountable. Genuine, ideological barriers to David serving in Ed's shadow cabinet - especially as Labour renews and repairs itself after one of its worst election defeats ever and its leadership passs from one generation to the next.

What we do know, however, is that the insistent framing of the David/Ed story made any difference between them, perceived or real, potentially crippling to effective opposition - not because there was no possible resolution to any difference of view or approach but because it was inevitable that any difference (and not all of them real) would be the sole focus of journalists in search of an easy headline.

And if it wasn't clear before the press and TV coverage of Ed's leadership address to the Labour conference that David couldn't join the shadow cabinet, it was pellucid after it.

"I think that raising a wry eyebrow with Harriet yesterday shows the dangers that can come,"

David wrote.

As Iain Watson puts it in his excellent analysis, the coverage:

" ...all but convinced him that every nuance between him and his brother would be pored over by the media at the expense of scrutinising potentially far more divisive differences at the heart of the coalition government."

Or as David Miliband himself described it:

"perpetual, distracting and destructive attempts to find division where there is none and splits where they don't exist"

Now, you can, of course dismiss this as the pseudo-rationalisation of a disappointed sibling. A way out of a tricky corner, of avoiding a fight for which he has no stomach. Perhaps, even, an admission that Labour is by nature fissiparous.

Or you can stop a moment and ask whether there might be a grain of truth here. And that whether you happen to respect the former Foreign Secretary or not, whether you agree or not with any of his views ... the loss of any talented individual of any party, however temporarily, to front line politics is not necessarily calculated to improve our self-government.

And when that loss is not about genuine, real, ideological differences beyond resolution but rather about the way in which lazy journalism's narrow, habitual and infantile framing would cast any mature debate, any mature attempt to resolve differences ... well, you have to wonder whether that's scrutiny deserving of the name.

Did we do well?