Can David Miliband save Labour after its lost decade?

Recent speculation about David Miliband returning to the UK to stand again for parliament and join Keir Starmer’s top team may have given the impression that he has ended his feud with his younger brother Ed, the shadow secretary of state for climate change.

But David, currently based in New York as chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, has, at least until recently, taken to describing privately the 10 years that Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn respectively led the opposition between 2010 and 2020, as “Labour’s lost decade”.

And yet, the prospect of the man whom Tony Blair once described as his “Wayne Rooney” reentering the Commons, made more likely by an interview with LBC’s Andrew Marr in which Miliband said it has “not been decided yet”, should be encouraged by Labour. Starmer is on a roll, but despite the party complacency that the polls may bring, he arguably has yet to seal the deal with the electorate and needs all the help he can get.

David Miliband’s opponents, mostly but not exclusively on the left, say he is a divisive figure. But David has always been more of a social democrat, closer to the centre of the party, than on its right wing – as many assume.

True, he backed the invasion of Iraq and rebuked Harriet Harman at the 2010 party conference for clapping Ed Miliband’s vocal opposition to it. But although Ed told my fellow biographer Mehdi Hasan and me that he lobbied his mentor Gordon Brown to oppose the 2003 war, the younger brother was not yet in the Commons and so there is of course no record of how he voted.

Would such an ambitious MP have voted against Blair’s position at such a point of high drama? And it was Brown, the supposed safeguard of real Labour under Blair, who went on to make David Miliband his foreign secretary.

In fact, it was the late John Smith, whose supposed failure to modernise the party is fiercely criticised by the New Labour elite, who appointed David Miliband as secretary of the social justice commission, which prepared the way for a welfare system aimed at getting people back to work. And as schools minister under Blair, Miliband worked with the trade unions to broker an agreement which brought 250,000 teaching assistants into schools.

Ideologically, he would slot easily into Starmer’s top team and, alongside his old friend and campaign manager Douglas Alexander, strengthen it against what is looking like an increasingly dysfunctional Conservative frontbench. A natural pluralist like his brother, David could also play a key role in negotiating a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, should that be required after the next general election.

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Yes, some will resent him as he may be seen as swanning in after the heavy lifting has been done by others, while he earned a lot of money in New York. And there may be fears about rivalry at the top. But there is no evidence David Miliband would be disloyal to Starmer, whom David has praised for months and with whom he enjoys a real friendship, as he does with the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy. After all, it was David Miliband’s albeit reluctant loyalty to Gordon Brown that caused him to be dubbed a “bottler” by media and party outriders who wanted him to resign along with James Purnell in 2009.

Now Starmer is talking to Blair, working with Gordon Brown and being advised by Alastair Campbell while balancing the left of his party, currently embodied by his deputy leader Angela Raynor. An already strong frontbench enhanced by both Miliband brothers and Alexander, all keen to see this iteration of Labour gain power, would be even more of a challenge for the Tories.

As for Ed Miliband, he is a talent in his own right and the recent targeting of him by right-wing media outlets, as “red Ed” and a “liability” is telling. By all accounts, his brother’s return to the fray would assuage the former leader’s guilt at committing political fratricide in 2010, a move which has understandably led to bitterness ever since.

It might even, for all concerned, bring about that rare thing in British politics: something of a happy ending.

James Macintyre is the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader


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