by Kevin Meagher
There’s an air not just of finality to David Miliband’s announcement that he is quitting British politics but also of inevitability.
Ever since he lost the Labour leadership to his brother in 2010 he has been searching for a meaningful role. For an intelligent, experienced and talented man in the prime of his political career, the taste of defeat was bitter; all the more so when his forward propulsion was stopped dead in its tracks by his own brother.
Such is politics. His campaign to succeed Gordon Brown wasn’t helped by his repeated, misjudged attempts to undermine him from the cabinet table. He waved the dagger but couldn’t thrust it.
In recent times Miliband has taken to saying his role was “on the frontline, not on the frontbench”. By taking up a position (yet undefined) with the New York-based NGO the International Rescue Committee, he will be leading efforts to provide emergency humanitarian relief and human rights advocacy around the world. It is to his credit that his lucrative speechifying and corporate sinecures were clearly not enough to hold his interest.
His departure also says something about our political culture where the pursuit of executive leadership seems to mean everything to restless former ministers. To be fair though, Miliband was the first to realise that sitting in the shadow cabinet would have been a disaster. His every utterance would have been pored over for signs of deviation from his brother. A Jack and Bobby routine was never going to be possible, not after the leadership election.
A contest, of course, David Miliband should have walked. With genuine centre-left DNA he was always much more than a Blair manqué. Yet the central failure of his campaign was in allowing himself to be narrowly defined as the ‘heir to Blair’. He should have pitched himself as a centrist; loyal to the last Labour government but not uncritical of it. His stuffy patrician campaign had all the advantages of money, endorsements and infrastructure but he couldn’t make it count. A victory in any future contest would probably have been equally elusive.
Of course as an insider’s insider, Miliband always has the option of a return. Parachuted into his South Shields seat at the start of the 2001 general election campaign it is not beyond the realm of possibility he could rematerialize. After Mandelson, we should never say never. While a seat in the Lords for a former foreign secretary is a given.
But for today, at least, he is going to put his not inconsiderable skills and energies to a just cause. It will be a painful wrench for him and his friends and he is a lost talent to British politics, but let’s face it: it’s a move that has been three years coming.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut