David Miliband warns: “There’s no alternative to hard Brexit without Labour”

The former Labour foreign secretary returns to a troubled and anxious Britain, and urges his party to step up.

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Nearly five years after he left parliament, David Miliband has become a familiar presence in Britain. In recent days, the former Labour foreign secretary has been energetically promoting Rescue, his new book on the world refugee crisis.

“As I’m in England,” he quips when he orders fish and chips and a pot of breakfast tea, flashing his ever telegenic straight-toothed smile. He visits Britain at least five times a year, having left in 2013 to be chief executive of the International Rescue Committee in New York.

But something is different this time. “The people I’ve met, from taxi drivers to journalists, there’s a sense they don’t know what’s going to happen next. I think people feel there’s a cliff edge coming and don’t know whether we’re going to be like one of those cartoons where we carry on staying at the same elevation off the end of the cliff – or go down.”

The country that the now 52-year-old Miliband left behind is grappling with Brexit and, by association, its sense of identity. The Britain of the New Labour years – liberal, open, at ease with globalisation – is long gone, replaced by a country unsure of its place in the world. And liberal internationalists such as Miliband seem marooned.

Our lunch location is poignant. From the arched window of a dim, oak-panelled bar at St Pancras Station, you can see the international terminal’s giant clock face gleaming above six Eurostar platforms. This physical link with the rest of the world feels an appropriate haunt for Miliband, who seems in limbo. Over lunch, he reflects on New Labour’s failures, the catastrophe of the Iraq War most of all. In Rescue, he describes the invasion as his “biggest mistake in government” and laments that he feels “only regret” whenever he visits Iraq.

Today, he lists the “failures of globalisation”: “inequality, the financial crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan, the integration of minorities”. These issues, he says, explain “some of the heat and reversals being suffered at the moment”. Is this the fault of governments such as his for underestimating globalisation’s threats and dangers?

“The short answer to that must be yes,” he admits.

Even so, Miliband refuses to accept Brexit as inevitable, endorsing a second referendum and telling me: “The ideal outcome is obviously that it doesn’t happen.”

He wears a light pink shirt and suit trousers, free of the jacket he wore on his TV rounds earlier that morning. He talks in the clipped, smooth tone that recalls the Blair era (he was given his first frontbench role by the former prime minister, who once called Miliband the “Wayne Rooney of my cabinet”), and aside from the tuft of white in his thick, dark hair – a feature he shares with his brother Ed – he looks unchanged from his days as one of the youngest-ever foreign secretaries.

In the new book, he writes about his own refugee story – both his parents fled the Nazis and he lost 43 family members, including one of his grandfathers, in the Holocaust – and makes a compelling case for communities as well as governments to set aside their differences and help refugees integrate. “It’s been exploited in the Brexit referendum; it’s been exploited in the Trump election. There’s a lot of fear and loathing. There’s also a lot of concern. So it felt important to get something out.”

Miliband is used to batting away the customary questions about his younger brother, Ed, who defeated him in the 2010 Labour leadership election, and about any unfinished political business he might have.

He enjoys returning to Britain, visiting his mother in London and, when he can, his old Tyneside constituency of South Shields. “You miss your comrades. You miss your country,” he says. And, he adds, “There’s no doubt you’ve got more power in government than you do in an NGO.”

Would Miliband come back to British politics?

He doesn’t like the word “back”, because it suggests a “status quo ante” to which to return. “I try not to address it like that,” he says.

And even if he wanted to return, it would be tough, because the Labour Party has changed so much. Jeremy Corbyn’s values now define the opposition. In conversation, he praises the Labour leader’s ability to mobilise people around his political project, yet warns, “that we don’t fall for a Leninist fallacy about the role of the party is really important”.

He argues: “There’s a tendency to think, ‘Let’s build socialism in one country, or social democracy in one country,’ after Brexit. [But Brexit is] a restructuring of state action of an absolutely fundamental kind. That’s why I don’t buy the division that says there’s Brexit in a box over here, and then there’s progressive Britain over here. That’s the argument of the 1970s… Labour has 260 MPs and so is in an important position. There’s no alternative to hard Brexit, or brutal Brexit, without Labour.”

David Miliband writes candidly in his book about how, when his brother was Labour leader, he “chose the wrong track” in fighting the Conservatives. He also criticises Corbyn’s chosen path. “It’s not clear whether he’s ready to surround himself with people who disagree with him,” Miliband tells me. And he cautions against complacency: “That ‘Oh, well, Labour won’ suggestion – the worst mistake we could make would be to assume that a Labour government is the next logical consequence of the current crisis.”

Leaning forward in his seat with his back to the platform, from where he’ll later catch a train to Brussels for more book promotion, Miliband worries that “there’s not been much change” in the polls since the general election. “Ironic for me to be saying it, but there are no silver medals in politics,” he says, before pausing. “Well, maybe not ironic, but well informed.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder