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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After the leadership battle, immigration is Labour's new dividing line

Some MPs are making a progressive case for freedom of movement controls. 

After three brutal months of infighting, culminating in another sweeping victory for Jeremy Corbyn, the buzzword at the Labour party conference is unity. But while Corbyn’s opponents may have resigned themselves at least temporarily to their leader, a new fissure is opening up.

Considering it was sparked by Brexit, the Labour leadership contest included surprisingly little debate about freedom of movement. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Corbyn declared he was “not afraid to talk about immigration”.  Owen Smith, his rival, referred to the “progressive case against freedom of movement”. But ultimately, the contest embodied a clash between the will of the membership and the parliamentary Labour party. 

Now, though, the question can no longer be dodged. What position should Labour take on freedom of movement? And is it time for a fundamental shift on immigration?

Labour’s 2015 pledge to “control immigration” was widely derided by its own party activists – not least when it appeared on a gift shop mug. Apart from making a rather authoritarian present, one of the flaws in this promise was, at the time, that the only way of really controlling immigration would be to leave the EU. 

But an increasingly vocal group of MPs are arguing that everything has changed. Heavyweights from the Miliband era are now, from the back benches, trying to define limits to freedom of movement and immigration. Chief among them are Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna. 

Reeves makes her case from an economic perspective. She argues that freedom of movement from the EU has depressed wages (the cause and effect is disputed). At a Resolution Foundation event during Labour conference, she recalled visiting a factory in her constituency where workers complained the jobs went to foreigners. 

Umunna, on the other hand, argues unease with immigration has a cultural element as well. He has said that immigrants need to stop leading “parallel lives”. At the Resolution event, he declared of Brexit: “This isn’t all about economic equality – it is about identity politics.” Umunna's tough talk on integration may coincide with his bid to chair the Home Office select committee, but his observations about the underlying distrust of immigrants rings true. 

How Labour copes with freedom of movement depends on which view prevails. It is possible to imagine the party coming up with an answer to the freedom of movement question that involves Corbynite economic themes, such as protecting wages, labour rights and restrictions on agency recruitment. Lisa Nandy, another speaker at the Resolution event, rallied the audience with a story of workers on low wages standing “in solidarity side by side” with migrant workers. It would be a distinctly left-wing argument that critiques the Government’s tolerance of zero-hours contracts and other precarious employment practices. 

But if, as Umunna suggests, Brexit is also an articulation of a deeper anti-immigrant feeling, Labour is entering more dangerous territory. On a tactical level, it is hard to see how the party can beat the May Government when it comes to social conservatism. It undermines any attempt to broker a "soft Brexit", which many of Labour's members, who voted Remain, will want. 

And then there's the prospect of the party most closely associated with ethnic minorities condoning xenophobia. Labour activists point out that some of the Brexit backlash is plain old racism. Speaking at a Momentum rally during the leadership contest, Diane Abbott, the shadow health secretary and one of Corbyn’s closest allies, declared: "Anyone who tells you maybe you have to do something about these Eastern Europeans, it's not about skin colour, what we've seen since the Brexit vote gives lie to that. 

“If you give ground to anti-immigrant politics, it will sweep away all of us. And we cannot give ground to that stuff. You cannot as a Labour movement take a position that one part of the working class is a problem of another section of the working class."

More pragmatic MPs too, still remember the ill-fated immigration mug. They see the new “tough on immigration” line as an uneasy alliance between working-class MPs on the Labour right, and a group of middle-class metropolitans who have spotted a gap in the market and jumped on it. Should this second attempt, Labour MPs will have achieved nothing except alienating their activist base. 

Ultimately, the initiative lies with Corbyn. If he can set out a radical agenda for protecting workers’ rights, he may be able to bring the party with him. But if this fails to shift opinion polls, immigration could be the next issue to disunite the party.