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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.