Lost Leader

Reproduced from the Times. A very good article.

As David Miliband gracefully stands down, Labour will have much opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of its decision

According to his biographer, Ralph Miliband, the late Marxist theorist, was “slightly bemused by his son’s activism in the [Labour] party, but he was enormously proud of him and took a vicarious pleasure in his unusually rapid rise within it”. The son was David Miliband, the time was the mid-1980s, and the political ascent came to an abrupt halt in Manchester on Saturday evening.

Mr Miliband announced yesterday that he was leaving the Shadow Cabinet. It is the right decision for him, though losing him will be in the long term a heavy blow for the Labour Party. Shadow Cabinet members have been swift to wish him well. But they should be aware that Mr Miliband’s departure from frontline politics is born of the party’s unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone confront the reasons for, its historic weakness.

On grounds of intellect, experience and political judgment, David Miliband was the strongest leadership candidate. He grew throughout the campaign, especially in its final stages. He was alone in acknowledging that Labour’s bequest of a wide structural budget deficit was a threat to a sustainable economic recovery. As Foreign Secretary, he did far more than acquit himself well in an undistinguished government: he showed real leadership within the Western alliance. When US security policy was complicated by a fanciful intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its quest for a nuclear weapons capability, Mr Miliband forcefully debunked it.

These issues might have been calculated to lose David Miliband the sympathy of Labour activists. Even so, he failed to become leader only through the eccentricities of Labour’s electoral system. He was the choice of MPs and of individual party members. He failed to win the support only of affiliated trade unions, who would not, in a reputable system, enjoy a collective vote of any kind.

Mr Miliband’s decision is no self-indulgence. He can deploy his talents elsewhere and have more time for family life, but he has shown graciousness amid tribulation. He is young and has served in a great office of state. British politics has changed utterly in months. Labour may yet turn to him as the figure most capable of challenging the new constellation of governing parties. One reason for not discounting the possibility is that Labour has conspicuously chosen the wrong Miliband to lead it. David Miliband would complicate his brother’s leadership merely by being the commanding presence in the Shadow Cabinet.

Labour’s share of the vote in 2010 was one percentage point higher than Michael Foot achieved amid a forest of lost deposits in 1983. That is a measure of the party’s malaise. Having presided over the deepest recession since the 1930s and made remedial measures more difficult through its own fiscal irresponsibility, Labour has some urgent thinking to do about the future of the Left. It is showing scant enthusiasm for the task.

Ed Miliband spent an hour on Tuesday talking about the past — not to infer lessons for policy, but to dissociate himself with a surfeit of glibness from tough decisions taken by the previous Government. By contrast, David Miliband spoke fluently yesterday of the future challenges for Labour and the country.

Lord Kinnock, deploying all his experience as the longest continuously serving Leader of the Opposition in British political history, exulted after Ed Miliband’s victory: “We’ve got our party back.” In the past four days, Labour has lost more than it has gained, not only in trading David for Ed Miliband, but also in demonstrating a preoccupation with the past more than an appetite for the future. In choosing to step aside and allow his brother room to lead the party unencumbered by his presence, David Miliband has performed an act of service for his party. Labour — and the country — will hope that it is not his last.


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