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16 May 2022

David Miliband: “Only brilliant people win from the centre left”

The former foreign secretary on Keir Starmer’s leadership, Brexit and whether he will return to UK politics.

By Harry Lambert

In May 1994, seven days after his father’s death and two months before his 29th birthday, David Miliband boarded the boat headed to the top of British politics. Tony Blair, soon to be elected Labour leader, picked Miliband, an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) fellow, as his policy chief. A young man of intelligence and ambition, he had entered Labour politics at perhaps the most fortuitous time possible. An unprecedented 13 years of government lay ahead from 1997. For the next 16 years, Miliband was at the centre of a political project that reshaped Britain. Labour sought no less than to “change the tide of ideas”, as Blair put it in one of the first speeches that Miliband helped to craft in 1994.

Miliband’s ascent was heady. He ran the No 10 policy unit in Blair’s first term, became an MP in 2001, was made a junior minister within a year and was elevated to the cabinet after Blair’s 2005 re-election. Two years later he was foreign secretary. He served in that role for three years while also holding an unofficial title: he was Labour’s leader in waiting, and the only man thought capable of toppling Gordon Brown — a task he avoided, perhaps foolishly, in the summers of 2008 and 2009.

His reticence had a logic to it; he appeared to have a long political career ahead of him. Defenestrating the prime minister is a brutal act, not least for Labour, whose leaders rarely win power, and Brown had many fierce loyalists in the party. If Miliband tried and failed to unseat him he would be an outcast. Besides, the leadership was his for the taking if Brown lost the next general election, as many anticipated.

The decision Miliband faced feels familiar. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, faced an equivalent opportunity earlier this year. He too hesitated, and appears to have squandered his best chance of becoming prime minister. For both men, the moment came early: Sunak turned 42 on 12 May; Miliband was 43 in 2008. It is a peculiarity of our time that such early decisions can define a political career. Gladstone and Disraeli fell and rose on many occasions in the 19th century. In the 21st, one misstep is enough. When the Labour leadership contest did come, in 2010, Miliband was narrowly and unexpectedly defeated by his brother, Ed.

He has since had a successful career away from Britain. He runs the International Rescue Committee, a $1.3bn NGO, headquartered in New York, whose funding he has tripled since assuming the role in 2016. We met on 6 May. He was in London to renew his visa, and to speak at an event marking 25 years since Labour’s 1997 victory. We spoke on the tree-shaded benches outside the Coram conference centre in Bloomsbury, where, he told me wistfully, Sure Start — the lauded New Labour scheme to improve early years education, cut by the coalition government — was launched.

Miliband, now 56 and as trim as ever, has the charming manner of a policy wonk who has risen to high office and acquired the steel necessary to survive it. His political misfortunes have added a winning wryness. The aloofness that he displayed at a leadership hustings in 2010 is absent; after his talk, full of high politics (New Labour won, he thinks, by avoiding Labour’s tendency to cling to “obsolete or utopian” ideas), he amused the audience at his own expense in a Q&A.

He was coy about returning to British politics. “It’s important to me that 17,000 [International Rescue Committee] employees and 20,000 volunteers know that I’m focused on them,” he told me. “I can make speeches about 25 years ago in my spare time.

“But I’m British. I’m getting a visa, not [US] citizenship. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I care about Britain. It’s a country that’s home.”

Speaking with Miliband feels like talking to an exiled knight of the realm. He is a prime minister Britain never had; in 2014 polling suggested that he might have been able to beat David Cameron at the 2015 general election, as his brother failed to do. His speech effectively sought to set out how Labour can take power (with the right “people, party, policy,” he said, you can build a “project” that people believe in), but he was reluctant to comment too directly on Keir Starmer, with whom he occasionally speaks.

“I’m not going to say anything that looks like I’m having a pop at them,” he said. “Why would I do that?” Miliband understands how hard it is for Labour leaders to win. As he put it to me last August, “It’s only brilliant people who win from the centre left.”

I asked if Starmer is brilliant. “He’s clearly brilliant in his career so far,” he said, genuinely if diplomatically. Starmer has “spent two years focusing on internal reform”, Miliband thinks, stuck in “the hole that he was dropped into by the previous leadership. Labour is trying to re-establish itself.”

Miliband is a natural analyst. The threat Britain faces, he said, “is a really serious national decline” and the “villain is ten or twelve wasted years”. “Then you are going to say,” he added, pre-empting my question, “what’s your five-point plan? And I haven’t got one in my pocket.” I pressed him nevertheless, reminding him of Labour’s 1997 pledge card, and the ease with which I can broadly paraphrase what New Labour stood for: education; funding public services; being tough on crime and its causes; advancing social change; and adopting a new cultural lodestar of aspiration for all. A handful of ideas, summarised in seconds. What are Starmer’s equivalent issues and ideas?

“I’m not going to tell them what the new pledge card should be,” Miliband said. “My point would be: let’s all contribute to that effort. There’s a paralysis of analysis here.” In August Miliband told me that the coalition and austerity should have been fertile territory for Labour in opposition in the early 2010s. Equally, he now believes that Labour could seize the chance to make “the climate challenge an economic opportunity” for a country in need of one.

Britain, he points out, is an increasingly low-wage, low-growth and high-tax economy enduring the economic consequences of Brexit, the subject on which he comes closest to admonishing Starmer. “You can walk away from issues, but they won’t walk away from you,” he said. “So Brexit, you’ve got to have a position.” He sees little to fear electorally from the Tories’ commitment to level up Britain: “I don’t see anything real about it.”

At one point in our conversation Miliband, wary of straying onto territory that would undermine Starmer, suggested I talk to the IPPR and question a new, young version of the policy fellow he once was. I demurred, more interested in the wisdom he has gained through success and failure. “Arsène Wenger said never re-sign an old player,” he replied. I pointed out that Wenger did re-sign Arsenal’s greatest player, Thierry Henry, who subsequently scored a fairytale goal in the FA Cup.

There is no prospect of Starmer recruiting Miliband at the moment, let alone of Miliband challenging Starmer, but there seems to be something unfortunate in that. Miliband may have been an imperfect candidate for prime minister, but his depth of experience in domestic and international politics is matched by no one on Labour’s front bench. He also understands the harsh reality of winning from the left in Britain. “Labour leaders lose as a general rule, as we know,” I said to him as our conversation ended. He smiled and shot back: “But they don’t have to.”

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