David Miliband steps down from Sunderland over Paolo Di Canio appointment

Former foreign secretary cites "past political statements" of the new manager, who in 2005 declared himself to be a fascist.

David Miliband, who resigned as a Labour MP this week, has stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of Sunderland after the football club appointed Paolo Di Canio as its new manager.

In a statement on his website, Miliband wrote:

“I wish Sunderland AFC all success in the future. It is a great institution that does a huge amount for the North East and I wish the team very well over the next vital seven games. However, in the light of the new manager’s past political statements, I think it right to step down.”

Di Canio is notorious for his "Roman salute" in 2005 to fans of his club, Lazio. The football writer Simon Kuper, nominating Di Canio for his "political football first XI", wrote in 2008:

Political symbols do mean something to Di Canio. When he said, "I am a professional footballer and my celebrations had nothing to do with political behaviour of any kind," it was a ludicrous statement. He is a very political man, if a weird and stupid one, who has thought a lot about fascism.

[His ghostwriter Gabriele] Marcotti says: "I think what appeals to Paolo about fascism is the authoritarian nature. He likes the idea of the strong man."Hence Di Canio's self-confessed "fascination" with Benito Mussolini.

A tattoo on his right biceps reads "Dux" - Latin for "leader" - in honour of the late fat clown. Of course, Di Canio combines his authoritarianism with an anti-authoritarianism that attracts him to the offensive gesture.

Di Canio was fined for his salute in 2005, and told the Italian news agency ANSA at the time, "I am a fascist, not a racist."

Paolo Di Canio. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.