Labour’s lost leader?

David Miliband is a great friend of mine. We go way back. So great in fact that we once had a good chat about his time as Foreign Secretary and his experiences of dealing with authoritarian regimes.


It was therefore with great sadness that I heard of his recent resignation as the MP for South Shields and his decision to take up a high-flying job in New York as the head of the International Rescue Committee.

Not only has Labour lost one of its sharpest political minds, but David’s departure also marks the end of my dreams of becoming a snazzy special adviser in Whitehall to a great political chum in the Labour government of 2015.

Okay, maybe ‘great political chum’ is a bit of a porky. In truth, I once asked David Miliband a question at the end of the address he gave to students at the Durham Union Society back in October 2011.

Big deal, I hear you say, but in my eyes (humour me) it was a political scooppar excellence and the beginning of a great personal friendship with a big player in British politics.

Surprisingly David hasn’t been returning any of my calls, but I remain an admirer. Since the 2011 address, given at a time when his brother Ed was fresh to the Labour leadership and sceptics like me were worried that the wrong Miliband was in charge, I think it has become increasingly clear that Labour has lost the leader that had the best chance of beating David Cameron in 2015.

Ed Miliband has had the best part of 2 years now to prove himself but on the three key areas of policy, strategy and personality, I think he is falling short where his brother would be succeeding.

Start with personality. YouGov polls have consistently shown that many voters simply don’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister. The latest figures put David Cameron at 9 points above Ed on the question ‘Who would make the best PM?’ Whatever it may be – perhaps the lack of the statesman-like swagger, charisma or easy charm of his older brother – Ed has so far failed to convince the people that he is fit to lead the nation.

Then there is the strategy of opposition. On the big question in British politics today – the economy – the two Eds are still struggling to convince voters that they can offer a reasonable alternative to Osborne’s programme of austerity.

More damagingly, the albatross of culpability for Britain’s dire economic position coming out of the financial crisis of 2007-8 still hangs heavily around Labour necks. We’re three years into the Parliament and yet still more people blame Labour than the Conservatives for the state of the economy and the public sector cuts that Osborne has imposed.

Choosing to blame Britain’s financial malaise on an international credit crisis brewed up in the USA, as the two Eds have done, is all well and good but it only tells half the story. They should also admit that it was wrong of Gordon Brown to have consistently run a budget deficit in the boom years leading up to 2008 and to have acquiesced in light-touch regulation of the banks. Until this form of owning up happens, British voters will worry that Labour is not serious about fiscal responsibility.

As it is, the combination of a lack of a compelling alternative and the albatross of culpability undermine Labour’s policy efforts in opposition. Ed Miliband has told us he opposes the pace of austerity, he opposes various initiatives of welfare reform and he opposes a smorgasbord of taxes (granny, pasty, bedroom, you name it).

But if these criticisms are to be credible there are certain underlying questions he fast needs to answer: ‘What would you tax instead? If you won’t cut welfare, what will you cut instead? Or would you raise taxes? Or borrow more money?’

We don’t need exact figures but without a clear idea of what Labour would be doing differently if in power Ed Miliband risks accusations of opposition for opposition’s sake. This leaves the question of Miliband the Elder. Would David be leading Labour any better? I like to think so, for many reasons, but one in particular.

Namely, David would have prioritised the crucial issue of Labour’s reputation for fiscal discipline. In the acceptance speech that never was, it is clear that a defining theme of his leadership would have been accepting the wrongs of the past and restoring trust on the economy.

This, combined with all of the other subtle nuances that made him the favourite of a majority of Labour MPs, would have made David a formidable opponent to Cameron. But alas no, instead Labour’s lost leader is on a transatlantic flight and the fate of the party lies with his younger brother. And still I wait for that phone call. I live in hope.

Published in Palatinate Online on 7 April 2013 –

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