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A Measure of Labour’s Problem

John Rentoul

david miliband 1 227x300 A Measure of Labours ProblemDavid Miliband’s resignation as an MP to run a charity in New York is a loss to the Labour Party. More than that, though, it tells us what a state Labour is in.

There has recently been speculation about the possibility of Alistair Darling replacing Ed Balls as shadow chancellor – a change on which Darling pointedly failed to express an opinion at the weekend. That is not going to happen, not least because Ed Miliband does not share the general high opinion of the former chancellor, having taken Gordon Brown’s side in the split between Nos 10 and 11 during the Plus Three.*

The other possibility – if it is accepted that Ed Balls is a drag on the Labour vote – would be to replace him with David Miliband. This had been less discussed, usually because it was considered “too odd” to have brothers in the two leading positions. I did not think this was a genuine objection, but knew that it, too, was not going to happen.

That, I suspect, is part of David M’s calculation. He could possibly have been shadow chancellor when his brother was elected leader, but couldn’t face it. Now, even if he could face it, he knows it is not going to be offered. Ed M has reconciled himself to fighting the election with Balls at his side: difficult as their relationship is, he gets to be leader – something to which Balls is equally reconciled.

If David M cannot be leader, he should be shadow chancellor, but it is a measure of Labour’s problem that he won’t be.

The other part of his calculation (I guess) is that he wouldn’t ever be leader either. If anything happens to Ed M before the election, Yvette Cooper would win the leadership contest. And it looks quite possible that Ed M might be prime minister after the election. Even if Labour lost, David M’s chances in the subsequent leadership contest would not be great.

However, it is not as if the party is so overloaded with talent that it can regard his departure with anything but a sense of foreboding.

Update: James Forsyth is kind enough to refer to this post in his comment on Coffee House, but I must take issue with a common fallacy. He says that David M wasn’t a good politician because he didn’t challenge Gordon Brown in 2008 or 2009, when James Purnell resigned. People have forgotten how the 2009 Cabinet revolt was fragmented and confused: David M’s resignation then would not have brought Brown down. That was because the MPs’ expenses scandal had only just broken, and Labour MPs were in no state to face the voters early, which is what they thought a change of leader would involve. The best chance of ousting Brown was Harriet Harman’s “cooked goose plot” of January 2010; it was at that point that David M was too full of ruth.

*Someone once described the Blair-Brown governments as not so much 13 years of New Labour but as 10+3.

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  • http://twitter.com/francessmith frances smith

    You are confused john, david miliband is a conformist thinker who would not be out of place in the tory party. there are times when conformity is useful, there are times when it isn’t. the economic mess we are in at the moment was created by conformist thinkers, labour needs less of them, not more.

  • ZacMurdoch

    David Miliband is indeed a great loss. Tessa Jowell can be as loyal as she likes (on Today) about the electoral college electing his brother as leader, but everyone knows it was the trade union movement wot won it for him, orchestrated by the revolting Charlie Whelan, against the expressed will of Labour members and MPs.

    I don’t have a problem at all with the unions, who play an important role in protecting workers’ rights, which is needed now more than ever. I can also see where Frances Smith (below) is coming from – there are interesting signs of a growing popular ‘fed up with all of this lot’ movement, with which I have some sympathy.

    But they don’t see Ed Miliband as their leader – they see him as too centrist (or right-wing, if you like), but less so than his brother, who they see as the next worst thing to Tony Blair.

    The problem with this – and the problem for the Labour party – is that most of the electorate are also in the centre, and most of them do not see Ed Miliband as a credible leader. Repeated polls show he is less popular than his party, while Cameron is the opposite. David Miliband, on the other hand, was feared by the Tories, and this is a gift for them. In that leadership role I believe he would have blossomed into a powerful leader – at least as clever as Ed, but much more able to articulate his thinking and much less open to ridicule (however unfair). People will say the polls don’t support that he would have been more popular than his brother – but there have been no opinion polls with David as leader, so I don’t buy that.
    If David Miliband had been elected leader instead of his brother, I think a Labour win in 2015 would have been a near certainty. And that is the loss we face.

  • creggancowboy

    “Faux Labour chap leaves for America” wow – there has been no Labour Party since 1997

  • Junius

    Tony Blair’s electoral success was in large part down to his ability to attract voters who would normally have voted differently along tribal lines, and David Miliband appeared to have the same middle-ground appeal. With the benefit of hindsight, Mr Miliband should have challenged Gordon Brown when the Labour leadership became vacant.

    To succeed in politics one has to seize the moment, as did Tony Blair first when he applied to be parliamentary candidate for the new constituency of Sedgefield and won against the odds, the left-wing dominated constituency committee favouring Les Huckfield; and again when Mr Blair contested the Labour leadership to the astonishment of Gordon Brown, who thought he ought to have had first dibs. As David Cameron seized the moment when hot favourite David Davis faltered during the Tory party leadership contest, in a display of brazen effrontery that left Mr Davis an embittered enemy.

    However, in a volatile world such as politics where style is immeasurably more important than substance – as Boris Johnson demonstrates time and again – I doubt whether Mr Miliband’s undoubted talent will be missed anything like as much as John Rentoul believes.

  • reformist lickspittle

    He wouldn’t have been ridiculed, you say……

    *That* banana picture, anyone??

  • Whigphilosophie der Geschichte

    But they don’t see Ed Miliband as their leader – they see him as too
    centrist (or right-wing, if you like), but less so than his brother, who
    they see as the next worst thing to Tony Blair.

    And this is the problem. The toxification of Blair (which pre-dates Iraq) allows Labour to feel better about what they see as the Faustian bargain they made to get elected between 1997 and 2007, but the fact that they see electability in those terms and personify them in the form of the arch-demon ‘Blair’ indicates the problem.

    ‘New Labour’ was too dependent upon the personalities of Blair, Brown and Mandelson and never created a centre of gravity in the party itself beyond a gradually numbing paralysation inflicted by successive electoral defeats between 1979 and 1992. That only ceded the initiative to the reformers, it never extended to a realisation of the deep-set problems traditional Labour were facing and a consequent creation of legitimacy within the party itself. A half-hearted and temporary adoption of New Labour as a tactical approach was then vulnerable to Brown’s appeal to ‘traditionalism’ at the expense of Blair to further his own personal ambitions after Mandelson’s self-destuctions. And we know how successful Brown’s leadership pretensions ultimately were.

    The 2010 election defeat, the appointment of of Ed Milliband and the maintenance of Balls on the front bench has already indicated the continuation of this uneasy and confused incomprehension of what it takes to get a Labour majority; the departure of David Milliband just confirms it. He was always a weak contender for leadership (as his flinching away from his major opportunity to contest for leadership indicates), but the perception that he remains a threat against the current leadership and the dubious post-Blair consensus it represents (and let’s not kid ourselves, these are the underlying reasons for Milliband senior’s departure) only shows how weak the Labour party remains.

    It’s not only unable to offer a credible alternative to the coalition government, hence Ed’s dependence on reacting ineffectually to the coalition agenda and their current polling results – it’s too weak to resolve it’s own internal tensions or indeed display any other act of initiative. Which makes me wonder; if Labour politicians are so afraid of taking risks, how do they think they will ever achieve power aside from this apparent reliance on Buggin’s turn which seems to be Ed’s policy to win in 2015? David M’s avoidance isn’t the only one; look at the mass paralysis evident when Brown undermined Blair and then took over the asylum (see JR’s surely despairing touting of Alan Johnson at the time for some instructive circumstantial detail).

    Is it because they realise their party is simply unwilling to tolerate a leader determined to make them electable? If not, what are they actually in it for?

  • reformist lickspittle

    Blair was a highly successful (in more senses than one) leader – but the world has changed hugely since the mid 1990s. Nowhere in your lengthy spiel do you recognise that – instead presuming (like the author of this blog) that what worked amazingly well back then (nobody seriously disputes that) should remain frozen in aspic for all time.

    In many ways the “Blairite Undead” now are coming more and more to resemble the hard left a quarter of a century ago. At least Ed Miliband realises things *can’t* stay as they were. That was one of the main reasons behind his “shock” win two and a half years ago.

  • Whigphilosophie der Geschichte

    … what worked amazingly well back then (nobody seriously disputes that) should remain frozen in aspic for all time.

    Thanks for summarising the opposition to Blairism so succinctly while avoiding the points I raised. So much for the spiel.

  • Pacificweather

    He did not have the courage to seize his moment and did not see his brother sneaking up on the inside. Let’s hope he seizes this moment and does a damn fine job.


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