What if Labour had picked David Miliband?

27 Feb 2017

It’s been another bad week for the Labour party, with calls for its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to stand aside. 


This time it’s the humiliating loss of Copeland, in Cumbria, once considered a 'safe seat’. The Tories not only made history winning the seat for the first time since 1931, but also saw their share of the vote increase by 8 per cent. Election experts are well aware that not only is this extremely rare, but usually by-elections are there to give a nudge of support to the opposing side.


With Labour in dire straits, former Blairite David Miliband, has now waged in on the war against Corbyn to resign. In an interview with The Times, the former foreign secretary stated quite simply that Labour’s shift to the left was a big mistake.


Miliband ran for the leadership in 2010, and was narrowly defeated by his younger brother Ed. Ed Miliband stepped down as Labour leader in 2015 after the party’s worst general election defeat since Margaret Thatcher’s final victory in 1987. His legacy was flawed from the beginning - consistently trailing both his party and his opposite number, David Cameron, in terms of popularity. 


Like any leader, Ed Miliband sought to reshape the party into a more socialist image. It was one of principle: New Labour was 'dead', and he attacked what he saw as 'brutish US-style capitalism'.


David Miliband, on the other hand, was seen as Labour’s 'heir to Blair’, standing firm in the centre-ground to appeal beyond its working class support. Ed’s win was thanks in large part to a strong vote from the unions with less backing from MPs, MEPs and party members. When faced with a leader it’d never wanted, a vulnerable Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) allowed Ed’s vision to become embedded - sound familiar today? I thought so too.


Labour MPs will be disappointed about the Copeland result, yet most have chosen to remain silent. Why? The trouble is that the PLP has been keeping its mouth tight-lipped after the failed coup to oust Corbyn last summer. Those who fear a Labour wipeout in 2020 are well too aware of being sidelined should they make a move against Jeremy Corbyn.


Some allies have nonetheless argued that Corbyn needs to take criticism for the Copeland result, most notably the general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis.


Is change on the horizon? Will David Miliband consider dropping his name into the ring? For the moment, it seems unlikely. Miliband has said he believes there is a case for a Blairite revival, and when asked if he’d like to return to Westminster his answer was more of a yes than no. So, it seems he’ll just keep a watchful eye on events for the moment and let his time come. "I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. it’s hard to see - but what’s the point of saying never?"


Voters across the UK do not see Mr Corbyn as Prime Minister - they never have. He now lags far, far behind Theresa May with an approval rating of minus 40 points.




For some it’s a lack of statesmanship, for others his policies. His response to losing Copeland was just plain weird: crying that the result was a protest against the "political establishment".


Secondly, the Copeland by-election shows why Labour as a party is in a complete mess. It’s true that voters in Copeland were unlikely to warm to Mr Corbyn - a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner. Yet, the Tories too had the odds stacked against them over proposed cuts and possible closure to a local hospital. Copeland’s voters rejected the party’s message as defender of the NHS and voted Conservative.


Which brings us to the here and now. There is no real opposition from Labour on the other side of the despatch box and this is not healthy for democracy. If the Labour party seeks to win another election it will have to cement its place once again in the centre-ground. There’s little chance of this - well not until Momentum or trade union leaders conclude that this experiment has failed. And so, it makes me wonder - would Labour be in chaos now had they picked the other brother?




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