by Kevin Meagher
Let me save some time and skip straight to my conclusion: the vicissitudes of David Miliband’s political career do not amount to a tragedy. He is a man who stood for the leadership, lost, and the world moved on. As he, of all people, does not need reminding, there are no silver medals in politics.
Yet here we are, nine months on, with Labour still haunted by the rupture in the hitherto relentless rise of David Wright Miliband. The reverberations continue to ring out. Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s book, Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is but the latest instalment in what has already become a tiresome soap opera (to the less charitable, it is simply a “geek tragedy”).
Enough of this emotional spasm. David Miliband proclaimed that he was “fine” when he spoke after the result had been declared at last year’s party conference. So we can put away the black armbands. There is no need for a period of official mourning. But if this saga is to drag on a bit further, then perhaps there is a need for an inquest into why David Miliband finds himself where he is.
Intelligent, optimistic, hard working and decent: David Miliband’s appeal should have spanned right across the Labour party. Despite also being a bit grand and stand-offish, he really could have personified the post-Blair and Brown generation better than anyone else. He should have been the logical choice, the unifying figure that married free-flowing Blairite pragmatism with Brownite social democratic moorings.
Although Number Ten’s head of policy in the first Blair term, David Miliband is said not to have been a true believer; too rooted in the party’s political thought and traditions to invest much credence in Blairite year zero hubris and nebulous third way triangulation. In that respect, Miliband is more Tony Crosland than Tony Blair. An unabashed intellectual with broad factional allegiances; but no mere camp follower.
The tragedy, again, is that he did not forge a better partnership with Brown (although that fault does not all lie at his door). The Labour roots of both men run deep. Textually, their speeches are interchangeable. Both are high-minded modernisers, but unlike Tony Blair, neither instinctively defines themselves against the party as he invariably did.
So there were only ever two places Miliband should have been if he wanted to succeed Brown: alongside him or in front of him. He should have assumed the role Mandelson ended up playing as chief counsellor and defender to a wounded prime minister, earning a smooth transition as part of the bargain. Or he should have gone the other way, looking Brown straight in the face before knifing him; brutal and upfront. Twice he prevaricated from challenging him after marching his troops to the top of the hill only to end up strolling back down again, looking prissy and indecisive in the process. Not so much a dagger in hand as a banana.
Rather than being the answer to warring brothers at the top of the party, he has instead become one of them. As his Marxist father Ralph would no doubt have reminded him: “History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.
His positioning during the leadership contest was no better. Despite having massive backing from across the top of the party, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. So certain was he of victory, that he “lent” MPs to nominate Diane Abbott to ensure she got on the ballot paper. Gentlemanly conduct or the audacity of a man who thought that he would walk it?
By the time we were halfway through last year’s leadership contest, David had raised ten times more money than his brother had. Yet he never made that incredible advantage work for him. He had no real message and his billing as the “Blairite” standard bearer was utterly reductive. Although he nobly – and rightly – held firm against the temptation to junk the party’s record in government, he became lashed to it.
But Labour needed to hear a new message from the modernising wing of the party that transcended Blairism and the New Labour years in power. All Miliband seemed to offer was a resuscitated version. This is unfair, but he bought up Blair stock long after it had crashed in value.
So he lost. Despite winning more MPs and party members than his brother, his campaign showed scant understanding of Labour’s electoral college. He made much of training 1000 community organisers during the campaign – a quixotic move that should have given him the time to butter up regional union officials and a handful of wobbling backbenchers.
Now “friends” are letting it be known that he may return to the frontbench. He is a huge talent, but he already knows that his presence in the shadow cabinet will see his every utterance and action pored over for signs of disloyalty. Whether real or imagined, they will be found. The political relationship with his brother will never become normalised until and unless he relinquishes any notion of standing for the leadership again, or there is a miraculous and genuine rapprochement between the two of them. It does not appear we are at either point yet.
If he does not return to the frontbench in the foreseeable future, his next logical move is either out of Parliament altogether – perhaps off the UK stage into a big international job – or, preferably, into a role that normalises his presence in British politics. Like another brother with eclipsed ambitions, he could follow Ted Kennedy’s example and concentrate, for now, on the less glamorous back office world of policy development, legislating and scrutinising.
He has his health, family and the knowledge that he remains an outstanding talent on whom fortune will surely smile again. At the moment, though, his status and intentions remain unclear. He has had long enough to formulate his plan B and now needs to serve Labour, and himself, by finding a role that does not conflict with his brother’s leadership. At the back of his mind he must sense that a failed Miliband leadership is unlikely to be followed by a second Miliband leadership.
Tony Blair once referred to him as the Wayne Rooney of his cabinet. Like that footballing protégé, David Miliband’s innate and capacious talent remains unfulfilled. Perhaps, for the Rooneys and Millibands, it is impossible to live up to the billing.
Equally, on a personal, human level, it must be difficult to adjust from spending an entire adult life striding towards greatness to end up treading water. But, for now, this is David Miliband’s lot.
And he needs to learn to make the best of it.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.