With David Miliband gone, the party’s talent pool has just become even shallower

He is indeed not coming back, and Labour has lost one of its brightest and best, writes the <em>New Statesman</em>'s editor Jason Cowley.

When I was working with David Miliband on a guest-edited issue of the New Statesman magazine last summer it was clear to me that he was restlessly in search of a new, demanding public role but did not yet feel able to tear himself away from the Commons. He still wanted to be a player in the game of politics. His wife Louise Shackleton is an American and I had been told by several of his close friends that she wanted David to accept one of the many opportunities that had been offered to him in the United States. She wanted him to move on, to accept that his future career lay outside the frustrations and anguish of Labour politics and outside England. She wanted to remove him from the incessant gossip and speculation of the Westminster village.

During the weeks we worked on the guest edit – with contributions from Hilary Clinton, Richard Branson, Kevin Rudd and Ed Miliband, it’s worth checking out, if you missed it – I tried on several occasions to bring the Miliband brothers together for an on-the-record conversation – “Miliband on Miliband” or “Miliband meets Miliband”. It would have offered public demonstration of their unity – and made a nice scoop for us. It never came close to happening.

David was already weary of what his friends call the “pantomime” of his relationship with his younger brother. There was no intervention he could make without it being perceived in some way as a challenge to or an attack on Ed’s leadership. When he wrote an essay for the New Statesman in March last year, in which he used the phrase “reassurance Labour” to caricature a complacent and reactionary faction in the party, the media response was predictable and hysterical. The Daily Telegraph’s front page splash about the intervention was headlined: “Brothers at war.” Good for the New Statesman. Bad for David Miliband.

Soon after I became NS editor I accompanied Miliband, the then Foreign Secretary, on an official trip to India. He spoke to me again and again over those five days in Delhi, Mumbai and rural Uttar Pradesh about how in politics one’s “motivations” must be understood. “In our first ten years in office we didn’t do a good enough job explaining the motivations for our policies," he told me. “This was the case with the most controversial things we did, with Iraq being an example: people weren't clear about our motivations. You've got to get to the stage where people can disagree with your policy but understand your motivation. If people disagree with your motivations you’re in a very divergent position.”

In truth, the “Reassurance Labour” essay was originally intended as a reply to something Roy Hattersley had published in an obscure policy journal. David told me he was working on the essay when we met one morning for coffee at Portcullis House, Westminster. I persuaded him to enlarge and popularize it and to publish it in the NS. Perhaps naively he was disappointed with how the essay was received. His “motivations” had once again been misunderstood, just as they were in late July and early August 2008 when, with Labour as many as 25 points behind in the polls and with MPs insurgent and openly discussing a leadership challenge, he was seen to have made a move against Gordon Brown. It never amounted to much. The leadership challenge that never was!

Earlier this year there was some chatter to the effect that the brothers were beginning to communicate better and that David might even be prepared to accept a role in the shadow cabinet. I never believed that would happen. He would not have wished to shadow William Hague having already served for three years as Foreign Secretary during which period he began to evolve a more multilateralist, less interventionist, post-Blair foreign policy.

The role of shadow chancellor interested him but he knew Ed Balls would not be moved from that position before the general election. So where did that leave him? What could he do? How best could he contribute without being seen actively to undermine his brother? And if not now, when?

A confidante of the brothers told me a few weeks ago that relations between them had not improved. “David is not even at first base in forgiving Ed, and Ed still doesn’t understand – or is in denial about – what he did to David,” I was told. “There is no way David is coming back.”

Now we have had official confirmation that David Miliband is leaving politics and the country. He is indeed not coming back, his motivations misunderstood to the very end. Labour has lost one of its brightest and best. The party’s talent pool has just become even shallower.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.