One of the many problems faced by Harold Wilson after he became Labour leader in 1963 was heading a team dominated by supporters of his immediate predecessor. Hugh Gaitskell had died suddenly, leaving his political friends understandably bereft.
Wilson was one of Gaitskell’s most prominent opponents and, as things went from bad to worse during his 1964-70 government, arch-Gaitskellites spent their evenings wishing Saint Hugh, the Man of Principle, was alive to save Labour from disaster. It was hard for Wilson to compete with a man whose qualities became ever more superhuman after his passing.
In the same way, Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party was dogged by the reputation of his brother David from the start. David was the candidate supported by most of the shadow cabinet when the two took each other on in the 2010 leadership race.
Some accused Ed of political fratricide and many more declared that Labour had chosen the wrong brother. Many predicted disaster, one apparently confirmed by the result of the 2015 election. Journalism’s most erudite Blairite John Rentoul declared that 2015 was “an election that Labour could have won, and David Miliband could have won it”. Reinforcing that view, David has recently suggested that under Ed the party took the wrong course.
Such calculations are based on two assumptions. The first is that if the party had fully embraced austerity and recanted for overspending in office, Labour’s poor economic reputation would have improved. The other is that David would have been a more credible leader than Ed.
As I argue in Britain Votes 2015, a forthcoming book on the campaign, the two basic reasons for Labour’s defeat were its grim reputation for economic management and Ed Miliband’s terrible ratings as a potential prime minister.
So entrenched is public prejudice on the subject of the economy, it is unlikely anything said by any Labour leader would have helped the party dent the myth that it was responsible for the deficit.
Chances missed, chances passed
But would David have been a more credible potential prime minister? The first thing we should consider is David’s inability to take tough decisions. When Tony Blair resigned as leader, David, despite much encouragement, bottled his chance to stand against Gordon Brown. He probably would have lost but at least Labour might have had the chance to debate the issues while Miliband would have shown his mettle.
Having fluffed that chance, Miliband dithered in 2008 and 2009 while Brown’s premiership crumbled. In the end he refused to oust Brown – and Labour went down to a greater defeat in 2010 than might otherwise have been the case.
One reason Gaitskell aroused such hero worship was his willingness to make hard choices: he called for the revision of Clause Four in 1959 and faced-down the 1960 Labour conference’s support for unilateralism. By contrast, David Miliband tended to avoid the difficult decisions.
When Brown stood down as leader, David Miliband regarded the top job as his by right – and his leadership campaign assumed the character of a victory lap. But once Ed started to mount a credible challenge, David’s team descended into threats and vituperation. At some hustings David seemed one slight away from a hissy fit. Yet, had he not been so arrogant and gone out of his way to talk to more MPs, he might actually have won.
David’s narrow defeat to Ed understandably hurt. But what followed has only confirmed the impression of a precious and entitled politician. Realising bridges needed to be rebuilt in a divided party, Ed immediately offered David the job of shadow chancellor – but he spurned the chance.
When Alan Johnson resigned as shadow chancellor a few months later, David was again offered the post but declined it once more. Yet, had he accepted, David could have significantly influenced the party’s direction – a direction he now claims was wrong. Instead he resigned as an MP in 2013 to lead the International Rescue Committee in New York. There he remains, a Blairite “Prince over the Water”, issuing damning judgments about a party for which he abdicated responsibility.
Closing the book
It is of course possible that David – a highly intelligent and talented man – could have overcome his shortcomings and become an effective leader. But would he have survived one of the most sustained campaigns of character assassination in modern British politics – the one that turned his brother Ed into a comic character?
As the former MP Eric Joyce has written, David “just isn’t very good at talking to people or expressing himself plausibly one-to-one without using silly black-box, wonk-type language”. Ed’s 2010 campaign team exploited this flaw by claiming it was their man who “speaks human”.
Just imagine: a less “human” Ed Miliband. For make no mistake the right-wing press would have done to David what they did to Ed, and with equally devastating results for his public image. Long before Ed had his bacon sandwich, David had his banana: and they both share the same father, the one the Daily Mail claimed “hated Britain”.
I don’t know if David would have made a worse leader than his brother but nor do those who perpetuate the David Myth have any idea if he would have made a better one. And as Labour decides on its future direction – and leadership candidates continue to put the boot into Ed – it’s worth questioning whether it should take the unsolicited advice of Saint David or make its own decisions about the next five years.