Without a starring role, David Miliband had to leave the stage

The soap opera saga needed bringing to an end and the thwarted brother's emigration does the job as well as reconciliation.

David Miliband's decision to quit parliament removes him from the exquisitely tricky position he had been in since narrowly losing the leadership contest to his brother in 2010. From the moment of his defeat any intervention he made, regardless of the topic, was interpreted as part of a complex family psychological drama connected in some way with his thwarted ambition. That is partly because there was a cadre of senior Labour figures who doubted Ed’s capability to do the top job properly and privately toasted the elder sibling as a leader-over-the-water.

Once Ed had consolidated his hold on the leadership those dissenters who still questioned the strategic direction of the party focused their mutterings instead on the perceived failings of Ed Balls to advance a persuasive economic argument. David’s old cheerleaders downgraded their ambitions for the former foreign secretary and started toasting him instead as shadow-chancellor-over-the-water.

At no point did D Miliband give any public encouragement to that kind of chatter. I’ve never seen any evidence he nurtured it in private either. His deep irritation and frustration at the “pantomime” and “soap opera” that accompanied his every policy pronouncement always struck me as genuine. The awkward reality of his situation was that he had wanted only one job in the Labour party and it isn't vacant now or likely to be soon.

The line from Ed’s office has always been that David would be welcome in the shadow cabinet or in some other senior role but that was as much a statement of intent, necessary to show the will for fraternal reconciliation, as it was a plausible recruitment drive.

That doesn’t mean Ed’s hope of involving David was insincere. On the contrary, the Labour leader’s office is definitely in the market for substantial figures to bolster the frontbench. Some Ed Miliband allies are given to privately lamenting the weakness of the shadow cabinet and its shortage of people prepared to do “heavy lifting”. When I asked one senior Ed ally recently about David’s position I was told: “It’s crazy to have a star striker just sitting on the bench.”

But what would the elder Miliband actually do? In theory, he would need a role that boosted Labour’s chances of election without stoking mischievous chatter about recrudescence of sibling rivalry. That was clearly impossible. David had tried periodically to intervene and found that whatever point he was trying to make – on welfare, on Europe, on the economy – was interpreted as criticism of the choices made by his brother. He was typecast as the embittered Esau to Ed’s Jacob. Either that or it was configured as a move against Balls.

The longer this went on, the more irritating it became for everyone involved. Compounding that frustration is the stubborn salience of the family usurpation on the doorstep and in focus groups. It is one of those personal stories that, in pollster jargon, “cuts through”  - a rare phenomenon when few things in politics resonate with a busy and mostly uninterested public. To Ed’s perpetual irritation, not being his brother remains one of the few things that people who don’t spend unhealthy amounts of time following politics actually know about him. For that reason I suspect David’s departure to US will be seen in the Labour leader's office as the least worst outcome now. One way or another, this was an issue that needed closing down and emigration achieves that goal, not perhaps as romantically as a great public reconciliation but quite effectively nonetheless.

There are quite a few people inside Labour who will be bitterly disappointed at David’s departure. One inevitable interpretation is that it cements the victory of the old Gordon Brown faction over the forces of Blairism. That is plainly the gloss Conservatives will gleefully apply. It is an interpretation that carries some resonance for the generation that bears scars from New Labour's epic vendetta.

On the night of the leadership election one of David’s closest supporters told me bluntly “the bad people have won.” It wasn’t an attack on Ed personally so much as an expression of rage at the way the trade union machine had been requisitioned to engineer the election outcome – or so the David camp saw it. The alternative view is that the older brother lost fair and square having fought entirely the wrong campaign, underestimated the party’s appetite for repudiation of Blairism and alienated one too many MPs and local party meetings by acting haughtily as if entitled to the crown.

That is all history now. The contours of allegiance that were so vivid then have already blurred and whole new squabbles, rivalries and ideological animosities have risen to take their place. That’s politics. There is always poison close at hand, it just gets transferred into differently shaped bottles. For the time being those bottles are firmly corked because the government is conspicuously failing and Ed Miliband has a fighting chance of being Britain’s next Prime Minister. For as long as that remains the case, Labour’s brittle unity looks set to hold. Hunger for power is proving more adhesive in papering over cracks than many inside and outside the party expected.

Whatever happens, it has been clear for some time that the next act in the Labour drama was being written without a starring role for David Miliband and he knew it. Since he had no lines in the script, no rousing soliloquies to deliver, he has sensibly chosen to leave the stage.

Ed listens to David at the 2010 Labour conference. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Ellie Foreman-Peck
Show Hide image

Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit