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27 March 2013

Don’t write obituaries for David Miliband. Do write them for Blairism

Post-Blair "Blairism" is now stone-cold dead, writes Kevin Meagher.

By 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.

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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.

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