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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses