Goodbye, David

Miliband Sr looks set to announce he’s quitting — and it’s the right thing to do.

Had David Miliband disowned the Iraq war during the summer-long Labour leadership campaign, he would now be leader of the Labour Party. I can't prove it, but, Nick-Robinson-style, I feel it in my "gut".

So it's rather ironic that the shadow foreign secretary, a prickly and insecure politician to begin with, and reeling from the shock of such a narrow defeat at the hands of his kid brother only 72 hours earlier, should choose the Iraq passage of Ed Miliband's conference speech to inadvertently reveal to the world his (understandable?) irritation and frustration at the current state of affairs. The clip from ITV News seems to show him saying, to a clapping Harriet Harman:

You voted for it, why are you clapping?

Bizarre. Did he not realise that journalists and photographers would be watching his every facial expression throughout the speech, to try and catch him looking unhappy? Here's a title for a future book: "Why do intelligent people do such stupid things?"

Harman's answer, however, is key:

I'm clapping because he is the leader, and as you know, I'm supporting him.

If Miliband decides to stay on in the shadow cabinet — and, like others, I doubt he will — he would have to internalise this rather crucial point. He is not leader. Ed is. Oh, and he got Iraq wrong, Ed (in private, if not in public) got it right.

But, the truth is, if he does decide to stay on, the media will spend the next five years looking for splits/divisions/rows between the two brothers. For the sake of Ed's leadership and the future of the Labour Party, this "giant", to quote my colleague James, has to walk away from the front bench and, I would assume, parliament, too. (Is there an IMF or EU position becoming vacant in the next year or two??)

On a side note, those of you who criticise journalists/columnists/bloggers for being ultra-cynical and suspicious about politicians and their various public statements and motives (eg, Jeremy Paxman's "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"), should pay attention to the David Miliband story.

Here is a politician who spent the entire campaign saying again and again that he had no plans to quit front-line politics, even if his brother beat him. He told me in an interview for the magazine, in mid-July:

I'm not walking away from the people of South Shields. I'm not walking away from the Labour Party . . . I'm very happy to serve under anyone.

And on the Politics Show on BBC1 three weeks ago, he mocked me as a journalist of "infinite impatience" for daring to suggest that he wouldn't be able to serve under his younger brother. Asked by me to give an explicit, on-air guarantee that he'd stay in the shadow cabinet under an Ed Miliband leadership, he said:

Of course. And I am absolutely clear about my intentions, my assumptions, and I answered that very, very clearly.

I guess we'll see if my journalistic cynicism (and impatience!) is vindicated at 5pm.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue