Saturday, 30 March 2013

Blairism, Brownism and Why Do People Care About David Miliband?

From the reaction and outpouring across the political media since David Miliband announced his retirement from politics earlier this week, anyone would think we've lost a big player and one of the finest men to ever serve in our noble Parliament.

Really, he's a fairly unnotable player who served as Foreign Secretary in the last days of a tired and decrepit government and who bottled his chance to oust Gordon Brown and become Prime Minister. As it stands, history's most likely to remember him for looking silly in a picture with a banana and for Hillary Clinton bafflingly describing him as 'vibrant, vital, attractive and smart'.

It's clear to me that what people are mourning is the loss of potential. People are (perhaps rightly) aggrieved at the nature of his loss of the Labour leadership to his far less credible brother Ed. Really they hoped the day would come when David would seize the opportunity to sweep in from the backbenches and take his rightful place as the far less ridiculous leader of the party that's practically guaranteed to form the next government.

People both outside and inside the Labour Party have good reason to want this. Beyond the cosmetic, David is seen as a Blairite and Ed a Brownite. As demonstrated by the wholesale turning on Gordon Brown by the media before the 2010 election, political journalists (and probably the wider public) preferred the supposedly centrist Blair to the supposedly more left wing Brown. And what demonstrated this leftist Brownism more than Ed securing the trade union support in the Labour leadership election?

Really though, the differences between Blairism and Brownism are minimal. The only major thing you could pinpoint as different between the two is that Brown did the good deed of keeping us out of the Euro, which europhile extraordinaire Blair would have sold us into in a murmured heartbeat. Really the so-called Brownites (outside the inner party at least) were people who preferred Old Labour and pinned their now antiquated hopes on Brown. The real dispute between the two men was over who got to be PM.

What we really come back to is that the difference between Blair and Brown was only cosmetic after all, just as between David and Ed. Blair looked the part (vibrant, vital etc, you could say), while Brown looked a bit Old Labour even if he wasn't.

These political manoeuverings have far more to do with personalities, aspirations and who looks more like a credible PM than the politics involved. If the politics meant anything and David stood for anything significantly different then the Labour rank and file have had their chance to internalise their disputes over direction and message when they started in opposition (surely the best place for it), but have blown it in favour of uniting behind a front bench offering only automatic contrarianism to the government and no real ideas of its own.

Whether someone is a Blairite or a Brownite really comes down to whether the given player during the last government allied himself with Blair or Brown. There are people who find these machinations from the time fascinating, and it's part of the reason why people like Dan Hodges will still find an audience. But let's not pretend that there was too big a difference as to how the country was run; the conflict was over who got to be PM, not of ideology.

So goodbye to David Miliband. I wish him well, as I do anyone. But let's not pretend he's some great loss to the national conversation, nor breathe any wistful sighs at how different things could have been with him as Labour leader. He himself said his stepping down was because he didn't want to be a distraction from Ed (though if that was the case, why wait until now, never mind his poor constituents being an afterthought); and if that outweighs the quality of his potential contribution, does he himself even think he's the heir and saviour of the great Blairite project?

By Jonathan Headington

(Image: Richard Pohle)

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