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And so it appears, after nearly being elected to lead the Labour party, David Miliband will be moving out of front line politics. Such a decision is, in fact, virtually unprecedented in the history of Labour’s runners up. When Nye Bevan was beaten to the leadership by Hugh Gaitskell in 1955, he went on to serve in the shadow cabinet, and was even elected deputy leader of the labour party while suffering from terminal cancer. This is unsurpising: after all Nye Bevan had been driven into politics not by the ambition of becoming prime minster, but by his burning desire to correct what he saw as social injustices. It is understandable that he wished to carry on influencing British politics, and shaping and fighting for the Labour party, even if he didn’t get to play up front. The same might indeed be said about the right-wing of Old Labour. Dennis Healy served as deputy leader under Michael Foot after being defeated by the latter. Whether or not he could be prime minister, he nonetheless had a vision of what kind of party Labour should be, and was desperate to fight for that.
In fact virtually all runners-up of the post war period – George Brown after his defeat by Harold Wilson, Foot and Healy after they lost to Callaghan, Roy Hattersly after he lost to Kinnock, and Prescott and Beckett after they lost to Blair, carried on with front line politics. Though diverse, most of these figures had strong opinions on what Labour politics should look like. Equally, they were people who considered their leadership of the Labour movement to be a duty as well as a privelege.
So what is it that makes David Miliband different? It is certainly not politics: after all any disagreements he has with Ed, pale in comparison to the gulfs that seperated Bevan from Gaitskell, and Healy from Foot. The brotherly aspect of it may be a factor, although Ed and David have had decades to get used to combining familial commitment with the messy business of politics (could things really get worse than when they were in the opposing Blair and Brown camps?). What does differentiate David from most previous runners-up is that he is a career politican par excellence. He did not come up through the trade union movement, nor did he ever have to prove his fealty and commitment to constituency party members. After taking a job early on with the IPPR, he became an advisor to downing street before being parachuted in to a safe constiuency – a now well worn path. For him politics has been a fairly continous journey up a career ladder. In the same way that people in blue-chip firms tend to reach a point at which they go up or get out, David, it appears, feels the same about Labour right now.
These last few months will have been the first time that David Miliband has ever served as an opposition MP. Considering that he spent nearly a decade enjoying the spoils of office – the most glamorous office of government to be precise – you might think he would feel a duty to put in a bit of legwork for labour now they are fighting to get back into power, especially considering that he perceives himself as such a great electoral asset. Of course we should not expect those chosen to lead Labour to make a life long commitment – people do get sick of politics. But there is nonetheless something unnerving about somebody who, barely a week ago, was seeking to become labour leader and potentially the next prime minister, now throwing away his capacity to directly shape the party and the country. You cannot help but wonder why, exactly, he wished to be prime minister after all.
David Miliband’s decision to throw in the towel is, of course, fairly harmless compared with the way Blair, Mandelson, and all of Andrew Rawnsley’s anonymous sources damaged the party, broke confidences, and generally smeared a thin layer of shit over the basic political solidarities one would hope existed at the top of Labour. Taken together, the recent generation of Labour leaders appear distinctly unworthy of such an honour.
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