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Is Ed Miliband another William Hague?

I have been experiencing a sense of déja vu ever since Ed Miliband snatched the leadership of the Labour Party from his brother at the weekend. As I watched his worthy but rather dull speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday this sense of experiencing a re-run of recent political history kept returning. Then, this morning, I put my finger on it. Ed Miliband has committed the same mistake as William Hague in 1997.

Cast your mind back 13 years. The Tories had just lost a General Election after a long period in office, John Major had resigned as leader and two of the big beasts of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard and Ken Clarke, were lining up to slog it out for the leadership. William Hague, then 36, agreed to run as deputy on Michael Howard's ticket and this was announced one evening. By the next day, he had decided to go it alone and run for the leadership himself. He won it and it turned out to be one of the worst decisions of his political career.

What happened was that having agreed to back Howard, Hague was then persuaded by his close aide, Alan Duncan, that he could win the leadership himself. This turned out to be the correct analysis but the wrong judgement. I've always thought the Hague could have been leader of the Conservative Party almost whenever he wanted. 1997 was certainly not the time to take it on as the Tories had too much to do to throw off the messy legacies of a once successful leader who had become deeply unpopular (Thatcher), bitter divisions over Europe and an increasingly sleeze-ridden last few years in office.

The parallels with the position the Labour Party now finds itself in are many and for the 40 year old Ed Miliband not particularly auspicious. He, like Hague, was a late entrant to the leadership contest having calculated that he could win enough trade union votes to snatch the prize from his brother. But why would you want it now? Wouldn't he have been better to let someone else take it on now, suffer all the problems that the party will have in throwing off the unpopular Blair/Brown legacy and then come in after defeat at the next election as the saviour? 

Having said there are significant parallels with the position the Tories were in in 1997, it is important to highlight some differences too.

First, the scale of Labour's defeat in May was nowhere near as bad as the trouncing dished out by Blair to the Tories in 1997.

Second, Labour in 1997 inherited a pretty sound and improving economy. Labour this time bequeathed an economic disaster, the remedies for which may yet prove so politically unpopular that the Coalition collapses under the strain.

Third, Labour is a deeply sentimental party and does not ditch its leaders lightly unlike the more ruthless Tories and, in recent, years the Liberal Democrats. Failure at the polls doesn't mean an end to a leadership, as Neil Kinnock proved.

 All that said, I still think it is unlikely that Labour will win a majority at the next election: if the reduction of Parliamentary constituencies and the equalisation of electorates in the 600 seats that are left goes through then it will be almost impossible for them to do so.

Which brings me back to my feeling of deja vu. Why go for it now? I think we could be watching a man who could have been Prime Minister one day but will probably never achieve his ultimate ambition for the simple reason that he let that ambition overwhelm his political judgement, let alone any sense of family loyalty.
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