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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.