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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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times