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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.