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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.