Dave reckons Mili-D’s the biggest threat: for the record, so do I

David Cameron has ‘let it be known’ (ie, his press team briefed the Guardian) that shadow foreign secretary David Miliband “poses the greatest threat to the Conservative party of all the candidates in the Labour leadership contest”.

How to interpret this? Is Dave’s backing of David a cunning bluff: the Tory leader backing the most New Labour-identified candidate to put Labour members off backing him? Or could it be an even cunninger double bluff: the Tory leader, knowing his endorsement could be read as a bluff, backing the most media-awkward candidate in the hope Labour members will vote for Mili-D to spite the Tories? Or could it be the cunningest of triple bluffs: etc, etc?

On this occasion, I incline to the simplest reading: that David Miliband genuinely is indeed the Labour leader the Conservatives – and indeed the Lib Dems – should most fear. It’s not hard to see why.

Mili-D started with both the benefits and dis-benefits that comes with being the front-runner: on the plus side, his campaign is well-financed, enabling him to mail-shot Labour members early in the campaign; on the downside, he is first in the line of fire from his four opponents, and has to resist the urge to play a safety first campaign which allows him to be portrayed as complacent.

But Mili-D’s campaign has impressed me. It has been disciplined (contrast it with Brother Ed’s rather silly attempt to spread the rumour that Charles Kennedy was about to defect), but he has risked some original ideas – such as training 1,000 Labour activists to become ‘community leaders’ – and delivered a thoughtful keynote lecture arguing that Labour needs to re-discover its mutualist roots, rather than assuming the state must always be the answer to any societal problem.

Ed Miliband has proved the big disappointment of the campaign. Initially, his was the candidacy which most worried me from a selfish Lib Dem perspective; Lib Dem Voice readers also seemed to agree he was the candidate with the best chance to ‘do a Cameron’ – as brainy as his brother, but a lot less geeky-seeming.

Yet his campaign has been uninspiring, lacklustre and nervy. His ‘Letter to Lib Dems‘ highlights one of his strategic errors: addressing voters according to tribal labels, rather than opening a conversation with all voters (including those who voted Conservative this time). And it’s hard to see today’s attempted blackmail by the Mili-E-supporting GMB union – threatening to withdraw its party funding unless their anointed candidate wins – proving helpful to him: rather it helps define him as the puppet of the trade unions.

We need not detain ourselves with any of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham or Diane Abbott: each in their different ways would be dream Labour leaders from a narrow Lib Dem perspective. (There is, by the way, a rather fascinating Q&A with all the candidates in today’s Independent: it perhaps is more revealing than might have been expected. Mr Burnham clearly tries to present himself, as he has throughout the campaign, as Mr Ordinary: his gauche, jarring answers are anything but.)

A couple of months ago, I switched on the radio to hear a politician whose voice I coudn’t immediately place talking about Gaza: he was eloquent, sensible and had gravitas. I suddenly realised – to my genuine surprise – it was David Miliband. He’s no Clegg or Cameron, still less a Tony Blair: he is not a great communicator, and it is hard to see him connecting with Labour’s core voters. But out of all the candidates he is the one it’s possible to imagine standing on the steps of Number 10 as a credible Labour Prime Minister.

But is a new Prime Minister what Labour party members actually want to vote for at the moment? Or will they be more comfortable choosing the candidate – Mili-E, for example – who will make them feel great about remining in opposition? Their choice of leader is going to tell us a lot about Labour’s appetite for an early return to government.

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18 Comments

  • So you now share common enemies, among other things, with your new bedfellows? You must be very comfortable with the Tories, to see Labour as the common threat. I don’t know why the LibDems won’t just be done with it, and formally announce their merger with the Conservative party.

    Now, if I had a vote in the Labour leadership, I wouldn’t vote for D Miliband, as I see him as too much of a divisive figure, too connected to the Blair/Brown power struggles. I wouldn’t vote for Balls either, for more or less the same reasoning. Having said that, if they were not tainted by association, I think Balls would be the more formidable opposition to the ‘coalition’.

    So that leaves a choice between E Miliband and Burnham, the less I say about Abbot, the better. Of the two I think E Miliband is the best choice. He has a good connection with Labour grassroots, and is more than willing to take on board their concerns.

    Having said all that, I think the ‘coalition’ should become increasingly fearful of Labour whoever becomes its leader. A leaderless, almost silent, Labour party are polling almost 40%. Almost neck and neck with one of the ‘coalition’ parties, and well over three times as much as the other ‘coalition’ party.

    If I were a member of any of the ‘coalition’ parties, i would be very fearful of a Labour party focused on regaining power, with a new, appealing, leader.

  • Some decent observations. One passage struck me as a bit strange, though:

    “He’s no Clegg or Cameron, still less a Tony Blair: he is not a great communicator, and it is hard to see him connecting with Labour’s core voters.”

    I think you overstate Clegg’s (and possibly Cameron’s) charisma and ability to connect with voters. There’s a sense of the emperor’s new clothes with most of the current gang of A-list politicians. I wouldn’t say David Miliband has ever come across as unusually charmless. (Ed Balls does, of course.)

    Clegg managed a +1% swing and had the good fortune to lead the Lib Dems after an inconclusive election. He’s not bad, not great… nothing special.

  • paul barker 28th Aug '10 - 7:16pm

    The Millis have been struggling to find any real differences between them. The most interesting aspect is the split between the Party & Union Establishments, yet another fissure in Labours ranks.

  • jayu >So you now share common enemies,

    We are in government. Labour are in opposition. The Tories are in government. Ditto.

    >I don’t know why the LibDems won’t just be done with it, and formally announce their merger with the Conservative party.

    You really don’t get what a coalition is, do you? How about Plaid and Labour merging in Wales while you’re at it? Repeat across the umpteen countries in Europe that have coalition governments.

    >A leaderless, almost silent, Labour party are polling almost 40%.

    Protest votes that may easily fall away at an election. As they did in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Unless they have a credible leader and some actual policies that voters like.

    >i would be very fearful of a Labour party focused on regaining power, with a new, appealing, leader.

    Who would that be, then?
    Given that you go on to work your way through to the least of the evils (in your view), rather than a firm: “It obviously has to be X,” it suggests you’re not that inspired, for one.
    Friends who vote Labour don’t seem enthusiastic for any of them. And the general public don’t seem to have been electrified by this leadership contest. YouGov poll of Londoners in July gave DM 29% among Labour voters, 22% among all voters. If that’s typical, again it suggests ‘best of a dull lot’ rather than ‘runaway favourite’.

    Maybe whoever wins will be a ‘holding’ leader – like Hague/IDS/Howard, until some new guy or woman comes along in a few years who really inspires people?

  • I think David Miliband will win and he will be the most open to co-operation with other parties.
    Even if the parliamentary boundaries remain as they are now Labour have a mountain to climb
    if they are to get a majority.

    There vote collapsed in the South and i can’t see it recovering enough to win back the seats it
    needs.

    I hope Miliband snr understands this and sees the need to abandon tribalism.

  • Wow Stephen, you seemed to imply that Blair was a good communicator. Apart from being one of the most terrible speakers of the English language in modern times, he was a good bullshitter. Nothing more. Please do not put that disgusting man on a pedestal.

  • @Louise Shaw: Agreed on Mr Blair. He was something of a “Jag man”, the kind of person you would lend money even though you know full well you’re never going to get it back.

    Of the Labour leaders, David is certainly the one I could see voting for. He’s perhaps most honest about who’s support Labour couldn’t keep hold of at the election, and it didn’t seem to be the working class but what in 97 was known as “Mondeo Man”. And I thought that many of the policies of New Labour were more than admirable, so I don’t have any desire to turn my back on that unlike most of the candidates. I certainly couldn’t have voted for Labour in 83, but I might have done in 97.
    I am also deeply disquieted by GMB’s pronouncements. I’m aware that all of the parties have their own big money backers with some say over the way the parties are run and the policies that are implemented, but I’d rather they weren’t so flagrantly trying to hold them hostage in this manner.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Aug '10 - 12:01am

    Isn’t this what always happen with the parties to the left of the Conservatives when discussing who would best be their leaders? The establishment find the most right-wing of the front runners and says “this is obviously the most intelligent candidate, clearly leadership material, you MUST elect him”. And we do, don’t we? It’s all part of pushing politics to the right, just go on and on running material in which being to the right on economics is deemed being “intelligent”, being on the left is deemed being a thicko, and people will start to believe it.

  • “I’m aware that all of the parties have their own big money backers with some say over the way the parties are run and the policies that are implemented, but I’d rather they weren’t so flagrantly trying to hold them hostage in this manner.”

    That comment could quite easily have been referring to the scandal of Andrew Cook, the Tories’ biggest donor in Yorkshire, who wrote to this government and insisted that the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was cancelled!

  • @Bert Finch: I thoroughly disapprove of that as well. The reliance on campaign donations is a significant problem in any democracy but I’m not sure of a decent way to replace it.

  • I think David Miliband will become leader. Why? Because he has the greater experience, the most gravitas and is the most articulate. Because he has effected a reconciliation with Mrs Duffy; because of his dignified but unwavering response on the The Politics Show to a grieving parent whose son died in Afghanistan; because he had the good sense not to challenge G.Brown when the media running dogs were demanding him to do so; because he wishes to implement the mansion tax; because he will re-align the centre- left and to this end is supported on the left by John Cruddas; because he will appeal most to disillusioned Lib Dem voters; because he will regain Labour seats in the South; because he is the only politician I’ve seen face down Andrew Neil; and because he has imbibed the dialectic at his mother and father’s knee.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th Aug '10 - 12:34pm

    I don’t think you should see David Miliband as a threat – more of a future escape route from the Torification of the Lib Dems.

    I Like DM; he comes across as thoughtful, principled, intelligent, and civilised; as articulate as Cameron but without the patronising tone.

  • ‘Not one of them is a Tony Blair – he was one in a million. Like Clinton.
    I didn’t like him but he could captivate me. ‘

    Louise we’re not yet quite down to the level of choosing pop stars as potential Prime ministers (well not yet)! There has got to be a bit of beliefs, ideology and political philosophy of the candidates in there somewhere surely? Tony Blair might look pretty and might have indeed captivated you – but surely politics is a bit more that that? I mean what he did by invading Iraq wasnt particularly nice now was it?

    I would choose none of the above – but there are some decent progressive Labour politicians who would get my vote had they been able to stand – admittedly the Tory press, which generally supports the present Conservative government, would have hounded them as left wing extremists (as per with anyone slightly on the left). but yes as one comentator mentioned even with no leader Labour have around 40% and when people feel the Autumn cuts gleefully about to be made by the new Chancellor they could go a lot higher whoever they choose.

  • @Stephen Tall
    I really liked your point asking whether Labour actually want to return to power. I have a feeling that some quarters of the Labour Party are looking at ideological ‘purity’ over power. There’s a strong think-tank sensibility to some of these Labour activists/members and they might be more comfortable providing commentary on government as opposed to doing it.

    Weird.

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