Will it be Mili-D? Or will it be Ed B?

Labour’s future revolves around a soap opera involving two political families.

I've been here at the Labour party conference in Manchester for less than 24 hours and yet I have to agree with the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow when he says that only two questions dominate the conversation right now:

  1. Will David Miliband stay in the shadow cabinet?
  2. Who will be the next shadow chancellor?

In previous columns and blogposts, I've speculated about David M's future, too. I suspect he is waiting till 5pm on Wednesday (the deadline for shadow cabinet nominations) because he wants to see if the party will beg him to stay on and serve on the front bench.

But can someone as confident (arrogant?) as the elder Miliband serve under his kid brother? "I really wonder if he'll be able to do it and whether he'll actually stick around," a close friend and supporter of his in the Parliamentary Labour Party told me last week. There was a pained look on the MP's face.

If he does "stick around", what does he do? Is there any other job for him, shadow chancellor aside? Will he want to stay on as shadow foreign secretary, having already done the foreign sec job in government for the past three years? Won't it be odd to have two brothers in the top two jobs in the shadow cabinet?

And is there, as the FT asks on its front page, a split between the brothers on the deficit, with DM backing Alistair Darling's halve-the-deficit-in-four-years plan while EM sees it only as a "starting point"? Or will Ed M go with Ed B, despite the silly claims from commentators that the latter "won't give Labour economic credibility". Really? Even though his position on deficit reduction is backed by Nobel-Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, the FT's Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan, and even the IMF?

I discuss the shadow cabinet elections in my column in the magazine this week, and I also make the case for Ed Balls to be the next shadow chancellor. I suspect David Miliband will wait a few months (a year?) before quitting front-line politics and going off to take a high-profile, high-paid job on the international circuit (EU, IMF, World Bank, UN, etc) because, in the words of a shadow cabinet colleague of his, "If he quits now, it'll look like he's throwing his toys out of the pram."

But if he does ask for, and get, the shadow chancellor's job from his brother, then that means David Miliband is in for the long haul, because Labour cannot afford to switch shadow chancellors in the middle of this cuts-ridden, economy-focused parliament. If he's not signed up for a full term, then I'd suggest Ed Mili create a new and nebulous position for him in the short-to-medium term -- perhaps "shadow deputy prime minister", facing off against Nick Clegg each week in the Commons, taking on the constitutional reform brief and helping formulate Labour's position on the Alternative Vote and the May 2011 referendum campaign. As I've said, I'd prefer that the shadow chancellor job go to the bullish Balls.

Now, others in the left/Labour blogosphere -- Will Straw, Sunder Katwala, et cetera -- suspect Yvette Cooper may be the best alternative to both Balls and the elder Miliband as shadow chancellor. She is a trained economist like her husband, but has fewer enemies than he does. (Plus, she is a woman and feisty, too . . .)

With Ed Miliband as leader, and the shadow chancellor's post expected to go to David Miliband, or Ed Balls, or Yvette Cooper, the future of the two biggest jobs in the Labour Party has become part of a "soap opera" (to borrow a phrase from Mili-D) revolving around two families: the Miliband brothers and the Balls-Cooper husband-and-wife.

Weird, eh?

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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.