Thursday 30 September 2010

Milibandite futures

David Miliband made a rational and cogent case for his decision to leave the Shadow Cabinet yesterday. Many Labour members will both understand and regret his decision. His argument that the (word of the week) "psychodrama" could dominate the next year if he had remained on the frontbench certainly looked stronger by last night than it had at the weekend.

David Miliband's dignity in such disappointing and narrow defeat on Saturday and his accomplished speech on Monday were rightly much praised. (Perhaps his acerbic aside to Harriet Harman over Iraq on Tuesday was a subconscious attempt to disrupt the beatification process which the Labour party tends to adopt for election losers. It was a newsworthy scoop, but the rolling maul of flashbulbs and cameras while Ed Miliband was speaking was demonstrated the astonishing level of visual scrutiny we apply - looking for a momentary frown or yawn which might become "the image", even "the story" - even as we loudly demand authenticity and a less buttoned-up politics).

It is good that David Miliband is staying in Parliament. He is clearly going to be very wary of the media, so obsessed with the "gotcha" interview , while his brother is leader. I hope he does find a way to ensure that the quest to find an iota of criticism of his brother will not excessively constrain or muzzle him from contributing to the party's debates long-term political and policy thinking mentioned in his statement.

There will be many ways he might do that: he will not be short of offers. It would not be surprising if David Miliband to go full circle link up in some way with Nick Pearce (director) and James Purnell (chair) at the ippr think-tank, to try to flesh out some important aspects of the pluralist liberal social democracy which is largely common ground between the Miliband brothers. Labour now needs a new political economy after the crash. We need a greener social democracy which provides a route map to making our living in a low carbon world. We are still floundering in the search for an effective and legitimate multilateralism without which power can not be held to account in the global age. Were the elder Miliband's brainpower and strategic thinking applied to these and similar challenges, it could do his party - not least his brother - a great deal of good.

There is one curious aspect of the Miliband v Miliband coverage, as the leadership contest phase finally ends. It is worth remembering that both Miliband brothers chose to run against their brother.

Much coverage seems to imply that Ed Miliband "challenged" his brother, as if the elder Miliband already held the post and was then deposed. There was a vacancy for the leadership: both Milibands chose to stand, aware that their sibling would be in the field. As David Miliband told the conference on Monday, this depended on both being ready to win or to lose.

It had been pretty clear for at least a year that both Milibands had very good chances to win the leadership election, and that any election in which they both stood would be very close.

Certainly, David Miliband was clearly considered the frontrunner in the election, anointed as favourite with the bookmakers and the newspapers. That this frame was consciously reinforced as a central aspect of both campaign strategies was surely a clue against simply taking it at face value. The Ed Miliband camp consciously adopted an "incumbent versus insurgent" frame, seeking to echo the dynamic between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, successfully offering a clear "change versus continuity" frame. The David Miliband camp eagerly accepted the frontrunner mantle, both from genuine confidence and in the hope that an "inevitability" strategy would become a self-fulfillling prophecy, as Labour MPs sought to back the most likely winner. The inevitability strategy would certainly have worked if it had deterred the strongest rival candidate from standing - for family rather than political reasons.

Either might have won the close race - but it was a good moment to own the mantle of "change".

So are elections better than pacts and deals or not?

It has become the orthodoxy that a contested election, not a Coronation, would have been much better for Labour in 2007, and indeed for Gordon Brown himself, since he would almost certainly have defeated any opponent in a Labour election contest at that moment. It is often suggested that the Granita pact was a mistake and, by some, that it might have been healthier for the party to have had a Blair-Brown contest in 1994. (GB and TB had become professional siblings, 1983-1994, but the younger brother had emerged as the favourite). It seems to me very difficult for anybody who holds these views to also argue that there should not have been a Miliband-Miliband contest, preferring a deal instead.

Is the orthodoxy now going to shift on Blair-Brown in 1994? Or has it become a "what if" journalistic trope that everybody tends to agree that the grass is always greener in the parallel political universes we never experience (even if those accounts of Blair-Brown and Miliband-Miliband contradict each other)?

When did a David Miliband leadership candidacy become likely?

The chances of David Miliband running against Gordon Brown in 2007 now tend to be exaggerated, influenced by later events. The opportunity was to run a gallant losing campaign to become "heir apparent" under a Brown premiership. There are so many reasons why David Miliband might have felt that was an offer he could refuse.

I don't recall any point when David Miliband seemed the most likely possible "not Gordon" candidate. Across 2004-2007, speculation focused on Alan Milburn and John Reid, before coalescing around Alan Johnson. (That all three represent three considerably different stripes of so-called "Blairite" to the not-very-Blairite elder Miliband again demonstrates the limitations of this outdated shorthand).

There was an assumption across Westminster after the 2005 general election that the next leadership contest but one would probably involve both David Miliband and Ed Balls. The rest of the field was never clear, and there was a broadly held fear of the inter-generational transmission of the Blair-Brown factions. Neither candidate wished to have their political future defined by those past relationships, yet it was also likely that the media would drag them back into that familiar frame.

However, David Miliband's 2010 bid was damaged by the leadership crises of 2008 and 2009. David Miliband has explained, many times, why he did not force Gordon Brown's resignation when James Purnell resigned in June 2009. His supporters still think it was a mistake. But if Gordon Brown had been deposed, it would have made considerably more sense then for Alan Johnson, not David Miliband, to replace him. There would simply have been no time to set out a Milibandite case in terms the public could understand, while AJ would have offered the clearest possible biographical contrast to David Cameron and the best chance of connecting to an increasingly anti-politics mood.

The earlier summer/Autumn 2008 crisis was less explicable, because it was self-induced. This was Miliband's own internal version of the Gordon Brown "election that never was", though he remained an electable (and very nearly elected) candidate this time.

David Miliband's candidacy was in effect confirmed when he rejected the job of European foreign minister, an offer made by PES chair Poul Nyrup Rasmussen in the green room of a Fabian "global change we need" conference in November 2009.

By then, there was already a strong public push for his brother to stand.

When did an Ed Miliband candidacy become likely?.

That explains why David Miliband told Channel 4 news last night that he had thought it likely, across 2009, that his brother would run for the leadership (also rejecting speculation that MiliE had, on the Brown-Blair model, promised his brother a free run later during the 2008 leadership crisis).

The idea of an Ed Miliband candidacy began to build momentum from his conference speech in Autumn 2008. I blogged that day about how it had lifted the conference mood, providing one of the better moments of a pretty dismal week.

It was partly the Cameronesque style of delivery that made the party sit up and notice. But there was also, bubbling under, an argument which distinguished Ed M from both Gordon Brown and David Miliband. As the conference swirled with media speculation about David Miliband's intentions, the content of a post-Brown "change" agenda remained almost entirely elusive. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown was expected to set out - as he had not the previous year - the mission of his premiership.

That was the context in which Ed Miliband argued for Labour to make its case as a social democratic party, committed to more equal life chances as part of the good society. Ed Miliband's speech was an ostensibly loyalist supportive intervention about how Labour could take its case public. Yet it expressed too the younger Miliband's frustration on two fronts: in the long-running argument within the Brown camp about whether social democracy could ever be put on the tin, and also at the lack of content in several calls from the right of the party for a "bold" agenda and "new narratives" without much sense of what they were.

A year later, this blog reported during conference 2009 that shares were again rising in the Ed Miliband, writing of the "swirl of speculation" around a possible future leadership candidacy, while also noting that the catch-all appeal of the Ed Milibandwagon could not survive once the time came for a public contest.

"Shares in Ed Miliband rose once again inside the Westminster-on-sea bubble following his rallying call to the Labour party yesterday ... he is not keen to encourage the swirl of speculation about his prospects in a future leadership contest sometime after the next General Election.

At last night's Fabian Question Time fringe, I noted that Ed Miliband is now reportedly the favoured candidate of both Derek Simpson and Peter Mandelson, which would make writing the campaign platform rather fun.

But the coalition turned out to be broader still. Tory blogger Iain Dale was keen to point out that he had been an early adopter, tipping Ed M for the top in his GQ profile of the Milibands [in the Autumn of 2008].

In November 2009, Jenni Russell's Guardian column made a significant intervention.

Two groups believed that, in the end, Ed Miliband would not run. The strongest supporters of David Miliband tended to significantly underestimate Ed Miliband's chances in an election, and so to conclude his candidacy would serve little purpose, while characterising him as too indecisive to go for it anyway. Both assumptions proved wrong. Yet Ed Miliband's keenest supporters also feared he would choose not to run in the end, for the sole reason that his brother would be in the field too.

This is captured in Russell's column, an (unauthorised) attempt by a close friend to keep an Ed Miliband candidacy alive, immediately after David Miliband's rejection of the European job.

I wrote on LabourList that this reflected that Ed Miliband would be close to 'joint favourite' 'with a run'

Is the wrong Milibandwagon now rolling fast? That is Jenni Russell's concern in her Guardian column, making the case for her friend Ed over his brother David ...

In the personality politics stakes, Ed Miliband had probably the best week of any frontbencher in Brighton, and has impressed many in the party in the run-up to Copenhagen. But Westminster wisdom sees him as the main loser from his brother's decision to turn down the role of EU foreign minister last week, which has been taken as surely confirming that David Miliband intends to be a candidate whenever Labour is next electing a party leader ...

Ed Miliband would be close to joint favourite, and among the leading two or three candidates 'with a run', but his brother's candidacy near the head of the field too would appear to present a significant roadblock to his own prospects ... this all remains very premature [but] when the time comes, the party should indeed want a fraternal and open debate, where it can choose between all of the leading contenders.

The difference between the two Miliband candidacies was primarily that almost nobody could say with any certainty at the time of the May 2010 election that Ed Miliband would run. Even those, like Russell, who were urging him to do so publicly and privately could not accurately predict which way he would jump. That was for the simple reason that he refused to discuss the issue, even in private with MPs seeking to press him to go for it, until after the general election.

Still, the scene had long been set for a likely two Miliband contest. Clearly, either could easily have ended up the victor after a closely-fought campaign. But the brothers were right to think that it was an argument best conducted and settled through the ballot box.

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