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.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad