Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Milibands, the Jacob and Esau of politics, go their separate ways

You chose the wrong night to resign - that was a my initial,  cynical, reaction when news broke that David Miliband is to step down as a Labour MP.

If David Miliband shared the streak of ruthlessness his brother Ed demonstrated in standing against him for the leadership, he would have walked out on another night -  in June 2009 - when his friend James Purnell called the game on Gordon Brown.

Because he stayed loyal to the cabinet the Purnell rebellion that would have decapitated Gordon Brown and installed one David Miliband as leader never happened.

Instead the inevitable happened, and Labour went down to one of the most crushing defeats in its history because MPs allowed their loyalty to get the better of them, and were bullied and shackled to a flawed leader.

Not all, of course. An honourable exception was the late David Cairns MP, who was sacked from the government for uttering criticism of Brown's leadership style.

When David Miliband spoke at a memorial fundraiser for Cairn's charity a few years ago he was mesmerising. Defeat by his brother,  and a spell in the political wilderness, seemed to have done wonders for him.

He made an incredible speech at the event -  witty, warm, visionary and full of political potential.  People were left in tears, particularly those who had that day witnessed a flat-footed performance by his brother at Prime Minister's Questions.

But Ed Miliband has improved since then,  and the parliamentary Labour party remains remarkably united. But there was always the question of David hanging over the family.

Whenever he spoke in the Commons, or made any intervention, it raised the question of whether he would come back into the shadow cabinet, if the room was big enough for both brothers, and what the implications would be for everyone else in the court.

Had David joined the shadow cabinet we would hardly have written another word about David Cameron and Nick Clegg between now and 2015. The focus would be on the Jacob and Esau of British politics, one born clutching the heel of the other's ambition. It would have been intolerable for both, but it would have made incredible politics, and a combination that would have vanquished the Coalition.

Ed Miliband made an open door offer to his brother, but those who know them said they were not reconciled, which is the greatest tragedy of this saga. I have a brother, so I know how brothers wound each other, but the greater pain is not being able to recover from the fall out.  

Before he is even gone there is talk of a David Miliband comeback. But almost all the Blairites have gone now, and few in Labour will see him as a Prince o'er the water, waiting to come and claim the crown. The Tories of course will try to keep his shadow alive as much as they can,  an ocean of safety now between them and the danger he posed.

Labour is a tribe as much as a party, and if David Miliband is not engaged in the election of 2015, and Labour do not win, then the party will not take kindly to him waltzing back in without blood or a battlescar on his tunic. British politics, by then, will have moved on

For every man there is a season, a time for every purpose. If David Miliband harbours any bitterness about not being Labour leader it should go back to his own failure to recognise, on that night in 2009, that it was time for action.

Friday 1 March 2013

The Miracle of Eastleigh

That was a long night, I fell asleep before the declaration in Eastleigh, maybe because twitter has robbed election nights of the drama of the count. 

But if you awaken groggy, just think of David Cameron who gets up this morning with a 12 star, continent-sized headache called Europe.

For nervous Conservative MPs eyeing their own slim majorities, the sight of the party beaten into a humiliating third place by UKIP amounts to an earthquake in England. 

Cameron's promise of an EU referendum in the distant future was not enough to slay the anti-European dragon, the fears over immigration and the growing discontent over economic stagnation.

Tory backbenchers will want a radical prescription in George Osborne's budget, the next political set piece of the season. But with Cameron ten points adrift of Labour a lurch to the right to medicine for winning an election?

With UKIP "coming up on the rails" all the way through the campaign, as its colourful leader Nigel Farage always claimed, then we may have a new vessel of protest. Farage is no Bippo Grillo, the comedian who snatched millions of votes in the Italian elections. But for anti-politics voters, wishing to curse mainstream parties as "all the same", he will do.

A few years ago that would have been a good place for the SNP to be in Scotland, but they are a party of government now and can only play anti-politics, decrying everything in the current set up, on the independence issue.

For the Liberal Democrats this has to go down as the Miracle of Eastleigh. 

They beat national polls that declare them dead and two scandals  - a bitter court case and an alleged cover up over sexual harassment claims -  that threatened to scupper Nick Clegg's leadership.

They also have the satisfaction of beating their coalition partners to a pulp, which is the Westminster equivalent of the nerds rising up against the school bully. Clegg can breath a sigh of relief, if only until more revelations come along in the Rennard affair this weekend.

Remember Eastleigh is a Lib Dem citadel with 36 councillors holding every seat in the area, backed in this titanic struggle by an army of volunteers from across the country. 

Not every Lib Dem seat can be so well fortified in a countrywide election. It would be foolish of the Lib Dems to read salvation into this Lazarus trick but survival looks possible in the light of Eastleigh's dawn. 

Wisdom is that if the Conservatives can't win in places like Eastleigh they cannot get a majority in the Commons. But by-elections do not write iron rules for general elections. The head to head fight between Tories and Labour in northern marginals is what will decide the next government of the UK. 

The warning for Labour, the tail end Charlies of the night,  is that although there are plenty voters unhappy about the coalition they are not convinced that  Ed Miliband and Ed Balls can do better in handling the economy.

The biggest issue in Eastleigh was not Europe, it was immigration, in a town with no visible ethnic minority and no great problem with racism. It is also an identified concern for the Scottish electorate but  Labour has not found the language of voters on this issue.

Concern over the cost of living for the "squeezed middle" and the "predatory capitalism" of the power companies worked for Miliband, eventually. He has his work cut out to deliver a clear alternative to a government that comes back to Westminster from Eastleigh as a vagabond Coalition.