The David Miliband who meets me in the London garden of the global charity he runs is businesslike. Dressed in a navy suit, he is tall and impeccably lean (“40 long,” he remarks, when I ask who it’s made by). His shirt is luxuriously white, like the teeth in a toothpaste commercial, and he looks undoubtedly younger than his 51 years. And that’s without considering the pressures of his two decades at the apex of British politics — a career that ultimately drew to a close after he narrowly lost the Labour party leadership election to his brother Ed in 2010.
This article originally appeared in Spears magazine.
In the days that our meeting takes place, Miliband has given an address in Istanbul, attended a global security conference in Munich alongside the US Vice-President Mike Pence among others, given another speech on globalisation in Oxford, and granted an interview to The Times. This last leads the paper’s Saturday edition and revives hopes, for some at least, that the former foreign secretary and Labour’s ‘king over the water’ may yet return to lead his supporters back to the promised land of government. By this point, however, the Blair apparent, so to speak, is en route to a post-Oscars demonstration in Los Angeles, where celebrity supporters include Matt Damon and George and Amal Clooney.
It’s all in the week’s work, of course, for Miliband, who since 2013 has been the $600,000-a-year president of the Manhattan-based International Rescue Committee, an international humanitarian relief organisation which last year helped an astonishing 26 million people around the world. The former head of Tony Blair’s Downing Street policy unit — the then prime minister’s press rottweiler Alastair Campbell nicknamed him “Brains” — has an important message for the world’s rich: “There are two things that are really important for the beneficiaries of globalisation,” Miliband pronounces from the garden of the IRC’s (for now) European headquarters in Bloomsbury. “One is to be aware that throughout human history, excess leads to revolt — and that’s what you’re seeing at the minute.”
He cites a statistic from the US that since 2008, 93 per cent of the income gains have gone to the top 1 per cent. “You’re asking for trouble, really, with that,” he warns. “The great danger is that the goose of globalisation that’s been laying these golden eggs… because they’ve not been properly distributed… that people end up killing the goose.”
For goose, read the whole international capitalist system upon which the world’s rich — and everyone else for that matter — depend. But for Miliband this is just the start: “We’ve seen from the Thirties the dangers when nations turn inwards,” he continues, drawing on the horror of Germany’s Nazi era, “When trade is blocked, and it must be a real danger that the first half of the 21st century becomes a de-globalisation age.” Don’t forget that Miliband’s own father, the Polish-Jewish Marxist economist Ralph Miliband, came to Britain in the Second World War, fleeing the Nazis in 1940.
So what’s cooked the goose? Miliband doesn’t skip a beat: “What’s going on is that after a very long period after the Second World War when economics and politics were pointing in the same direction — we’re now seeing that [they] are pulling in opposite directions.” Indeed, that old consensus — the one that saw “global, Western-led, multilateral institutions” such as the UN, International Monetary Fund and EU aligned with “an economic agenda that was about regulated expansion of markets, movement of people, movement of capital” — is turning to dust in the face of rising populism. “The economics says global trade is good,” explains Miliband, the note of his tone falling, “the politics is very difficult.” On migration, he says: “The economics is absolutely clear, migration is good, the politics is bad. The economics is clear that we should be investing more in the young, but the politics is about paying a debt to the old.”
For evidence, he points to the 2016 US presidential election: Donald Trump won 2,600 of the 3,000 counties in America, but they represented just 36 per cent of the country’s national economic output. “The economic power was not on the president’s side,” says Miliband. “That’s interesting evidence of economics and politics pulling in opposite directions.”
So, what’s to be done? “Globalisation is obviously too unstable, too unequal and too insecure,” he asserts. “The policy agenda is in part about how you remedy the inequality — whether through the minimum wage or trade assistance for people that are affected by trade adjustment, or by tax policy.”
Much of that, of course, chimes with his period in office under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “There’s also a political agenda,” he adds, “which is about framing an argument that instead of having villains who are foreigners and heroes who are those who build walls, [that] there’s a different political narrative in which the resources that are available for an interconnected world are deployed in a way that benefits the majority of people rather than a few, and that’s obviously a massive challenge that needs to be addressed.”
It’s also fairly obvious that President Trump isn’t Miliband’s flavour of the month — unsurprising given his political location or his closeness to the president’s erstwhile rival, Hillary Clinton. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that his solution sounds like the sort of progressive internationalism that hasn’t been doing too well at the ballot box of late. So I cut to the chase: what can the rich do to help fix globalisation?
“The first point is nothing in excess,” says Miliband. “The second thing is… support for charitable efforts at home and abroad.” He adjusts the sentence: “The angle I would give to you is… the danger is that the global problems seem so big that charity doesn’t just begin at home, it ends at home. And that’s a problem.”
The rich, in other words, need to give more money to charity, and not just to domestic or home-grown good causes. How much should they give? “I’m not applying a tithe to people,” he replies, batting my suggestion away with a mild frown. “Some people can give a lot more, and other people don’t have a lot more to give. And that’s why, you know, I’m… not going to set myself up in moral judgement for individuals. What I would say is that there’s a moral challenge, and I don’t believe that charity is a substitute for government, because governments have powers that private individuals don’t have, but I think that there is real good to be done.”
Pointing to British traditions of giving, such as Comic Relief, he adds: “I guess the way I would frame the challenge is that we need a philanthropic option to help shape not just the country that people are born in, but global systems.” This is a high ambition. “You see, Bill Gates, to be fair to him, the striking thing about the richest man in the world is that he’s deliberately done it for international effort, not domestic effort.” Gates’s charitable endeavours include, don’t forget, attempting to find a solution to the millennia-old scourge of malaria. “He’s not tried to build more museums or hospitals in Seattle,” adds Miliband. “And I think that’s a good example.”
The international perspective on philanthropy is understandably close to Miliband’s heart: the IRC, founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, is global in its efforts but draws almost 60 per cent of its $700 million budget from US and UK government coffers, both of which are vulnerable to political pressure. “We’re trying to help people whose names you will probably never know,” Miliband explains, “whose stories you can only imagine, whose countries you may never have visited.” Ultimately, he insists, it’s “really important, that those of us who have had the good fortune to have been born in relatively wealthy countries… recognise that this interconnected world demands our attention.”
As a result, what he wants, is for his charity to “have a relationship” with the world’s rich. “We want to have a relationship with them that is about more than a financial transaction,” he says. “We want people to understand us, we want people to be able to explain to others what we do. Secondly, if they’re in business, we’d love to have corporate partnerships that offer the benefits” — for instance expertise from their legal or marketing or IT departments. “And thirdly, we want them to become donors,” he adds, pointing out that some 20 per cent of the charity’s funds come privately.
But it’s not just about money, it’s about what you can do with it, too. “The significance of private money is that the leverage is great,” he states. “We love our government grants, but they specify what we’re going to do. And in the way of things, it takes private entrepreneurs to help the people who are not in the news, which is one of our obligations. It’s private support that helps us take risk in innovations.”
And his charity has never needed our help more: it’s “under siege” from the new US administration. “Under siege,” he explains, “because of the questioning in our home base about whether or not the word ‘refugee’ is a code word for terrorist, which is the assertion of some in the current administration. He [Trump] has asserted that refugees are flooding into America without any checks, which obviously is not the case. His campaign has brought into question the whole basis upon which America has welcomed refugees. He’s moved on to ground in the US that’s never been trodden before.”
No meeting would be complete without touching on Brexit: a committed Europhile, Miliband remains “very, very worried” about Britain’s departure from the EU, but he accepts the outcome of the referendum. “[What] I would say is that those of us who supported staying shouldn’t suddenly accept that because we lost the referendum, we lost the argument,” he asserts. “We can continue to believe what we believe, until the facts go the other way.” And for him they haven’t done that yet: “Sitting outside the UK, maybe one has a… sense of the perils that are there,” he adds.
Unsurprisingly, Miliband supports his old boss and mentor Blair’s recent intervention in the debate (“he made some really important points”). “While the government negotiates, the rest of us can’t just suspend thought,” Miliband says. “We’re allowed to have views. I’ve always not really understood, to be absolutely honest, why the current government didn’t think it would be good to have Parliament more involved. You know, it’s got to be a negotiation on behalf of the 100 per cent, not just the 52 per cent.”
And he’s not entirely unoptimistic, it seems: “Obviously, I want the government’s negotiations to succeed,” he adds, before mentioning the Munich security conference he just attended. “The European leaders I met were not spoiling for a fight at all,” he confides.
The other topic that can’t be avoided is his political ambitions. Does he ever tire of people saying: “Come back to Britain, come back to politics”? Miliband breaks into laughter and looks away, up to the sky, before settling on a joke: “I [would] tire much more of people saying, “Thank God you’ve gone away and please stay!'” he shoots back. Would he describe himself as a “retired politician”? This gets another laugh. “An ex-politician,” he corrects. “Harry Truman said the definition of a statesman is a dead politician, so there we go. Don’t call me a statesman!”
Doesn’t he miss it, though? He refuses in his own words to be tempted into the discussion. “It’s better not to press the rewind button and think backwards. It’s better to take life one step at a time.”
Which — given that Miliband’s week concludes with his declaration that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is in its worst electoral straits since the 1930s — leaves the door very much ajar for a possible return. One day. In the meantime he insists that the IRC will continue to “engage my head and my heart in a serious way”. Either way, it’s worth bearing in mind that Miliband is yet to release a political memoir: one can only assume that he thinks that a chapter or two are yet to be written.
This article originally appeared in Spears magazine. Alec Marsh is the editor of Spears.