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

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.