Tuesday 28 September 2010

Too little, too soon in Labour's opera?

The prize for the most useless text message of all time must surely go to the one I received at teatime on Saturday, reading “Miliband wins!”

Since the sender is a fan of both textspeak and The X-Factor, I wondered for a nanosecond whether a military band had scored an unlikely victory in Simon Cowell’s latest talent contest. But I swiftly realised that the timing was all wrong, and fired up the news on my BlackBerry to satisfy my intense curiosity about which of the geeky north London political obsessives had seized the glittering prize of leadership of the Labour party.

At the time, I was on my way to see a Baroque opera of almost incredible obscurity: Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe (first staged in 1688, next performed in 2008 and only now receiving its British premiere). This was a bizarre and hugely complex tale involving a two-timing queen, her world-weary and indecisive husband and assorted gods, priests, a winged magician and malevolent underworld spirits. Much like the Labour party conference, in fact.

It culminated in a most convincing fire engulfing the palace of Thebes, killing all the royal children, whereupon the king committed suicide and Niobe herself turned to stone in despair. And I could only think: yes, that will be pretty much like the atmosphere at Ma Miliband’s house next time they all get together for a big family gathering, only with better music.

It is as though the Archbishop of Canterbury were about to place the crown on the 80-year-old Prince of Wales’s head, and Prince Andrew swanned up and grabbed it for himself.

Not being a Labour supporter myself, I naturally rejoice in the party’s selection of the more left wing candidate for the post, and one whose name so conveniently rhymes with “red”. But as a Briton, I deeply regret that our alternative Prime Minister is now a 40-year-old who has only five years’ experience in Parliament and has never held down a job outside politics. It is all too little, too soon.

It is ironic that one of the accusations levelled against Ed during the campaign was that he had been dithering and indecisive in office, when his brother might well have been Labour leader today if he hadn’t bottled a series of opportunities to dethrone Gordon Brown. True, there is the saying that he who wields the dagger rarely gains the crown. But the political career graveyard is also full of those who let “I dare not” wait upon “I would”.

Is a bit of dithering indecision at the top necessarily such a bad thing, in any case? It might have spared us Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a younger brother myself, I have some sympathy with Ed Miliband’s defiance of the convention that the older sibling should be the brighter high-achiever, with the number two being dimmer, nicer and ready to step into the elder’s shoes if he should go under the proverbial bus.

But isn’t it a bit odd that, in a nation of 60 million people, the choice for leadership of one of our great political parties should ultimately came down to one between two brothers? What does that say for Labour’s success in widening opportunity for all over the last 110 years?

The track record of younger brothers in political leadership does not seem all that impressive, but might the world have been a better place if Ted Kennedy, Raul Castro or Jeb Bush had been first to the top? No, probably not.

The obvious British precedent is of a most distinguished foreign secretary who never made it to Number 10, despite being leader of his party in the House of Commons. He was called Austen Chamberlain and he had a younger half-brother called Neville who did ultimately claim the prize. Remind me, how did that one turn out?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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