Don't write obituaries for David Miliband. Do write them for Blairism

Post-Blair "Blairism" is now stone-cold dead, writes Kevin Meagher.

Reading this morning’s "living obituaries", it is perhaps worth noting that David Miliband has not died. However his decision to quit British politics and head to New York to run the International Rescue Committee does signal that post-Blair "Blairism" is now stone-cold dead. 

This is the real significance of today. By bowing out, Miliband now leaves the Blairites without a real champion to rally around, if the opportunity again arises to bid for control of the party. In reality Blairism was finished the moment David Miliband failed to win the party leadership back in 2010. Indeed, it took ill before then, during 2007’s leadership contest to be precise, when not one of Blair’s lieutenants had the guts to challenge Gordon Brown for the top job.

None of them – Miliband, James Purnell, Alan Johnson, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon or John Reid – could be relied on to take the fight to Gordon Brown. Unfortunately Blairites are a pretty lily-livered lot when it comes to the rough stuff. 

It was not always so. Tony Blair had to knife Brown to become standard bearer for the party’s modernising wing during the 1994 leadership contest caused by John Smith’s untimely death. The lack of similar fortitude by his followers is why first Brown and latterly Ed Miliband assumed the leadership.

One explanation is that in modern politics the longevity of a career at the top seems to outweigh wider clan or ideological allegiances. Putting one’s political mortality on the line becomes unconscionable. David Miliband rattled the cages on numerous occasions but didn’t dare to resign from Brown’s cabinet and make a move against him, or simply resign and build a following on the backbenches and wait for the inevitable election defeat in 2010. He wielded a banana when he should have reached for a stiletto.

Yet Margaret Thatcher did not become Tory leader in 1975 by asking nicely; she saw her chance and took it. So did Harold Wilson when as shadow chancellor he brazenly stood against his leader, Hugh Gaitskell, in 1960. He lost, but was Prime Minister four years later. Fortune does indeed favour the bold – and it definitely shines on the brazen.

When his moment finally came following the 2010 election defeat, David Miliband ran a strategically disastrous bid for the party leadership. Like his brother, he has Labour’s red rose stamped on every strand of his DNA. He is more Tony Crosland than Tony Blair; but he failed because he allowed himself to be typecast as “heir to Blair” and then ran a ponderous, unfocused campaign.

Rather than wafting around making grandiloquent speeches about the future of social democracy, or extolling the virtues of community organising, David Miliband should have spent his time buttering-up regional trade union officials and being nicer to those backbench colleagues who felt dismissed by his lofty, patrician style. Winning just an extra handful of MPs would have cancelled out his brother’s advantage in the trade union section of the party’s complex electoral college. But he never seemed willing to fight for it.

The Blairites wanted a restoration, yet Miliband needed to be – and could plausibly have been – his own man. So long the understudy to Blair, he just couldn’t make the transition from camp follower to tribal chief. His brother, more pragmatic, perhaps more ruthless, could.

This is why David Miliband is now off to run a charity, while Ed gears up to become Prime Minister.

Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.