Matthew Dancona

Relax, comrades: David Miliband is Blairesque, rather than Blairite

Matthew d'Ancona reviews the week in politics

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One Cabinet minister described it to me with dark wit as the ‘Eden Project’: the idea being that, after a summer of reflection, Gordon Brown is gently or not-so-gently persuaded to retire, in the manner of Anthony Eden, on the grounds of ‘ill health’. To which the PM’s entirely predictable response is: have you seen how many press-ups I can do? The revelation that he has hired a personal trainer may have been clunky, but it was a clear signal that he is not going to oblige those who would like him to quit on medical grounds.

I would call the first round of the great Miliband–Brown bout a dead heat. The Foreign Secretary achieved what no other Cabinet minister has done before him, which was to force Gordon to call off his attack dogs. One day, ‘allies’ of the PM were smearing Miliband as ‘disloyal and self-serving’. The next, Number 10 was issuing a statement to say how the Foreign Secretary was spot-on in his analysis of the challenge facing the government.

That said, last weekend belonged to Mr Brown. He moved the narrative away from regicide and towards the reshuffle. More ominously for Mr Miliband, the Brownites had considerable success in spinning his antics as the work of the disenfranchised Blairites. The leak to the Mail on Sunday of a memorandum attributed to Tony Blair, attacking Mr Brown’s performance at last year’s Labour conference, suggested the existence of a Blairite plot to defenestrate the PM, and naturally encouraged those already predisposed to see Mr Miliband as the youthful marionette of shadowy puppeteers from Tony’s ancien regime (puppeteers such as Alan Milburn, who was tipped this week to be Chancellor in a Miliband Cabinet). If the Foreign Secretary is perceived to be merely the front man for a restorationist faction, he is doomed.

I have news for the comrades, however. All these years, Mr Miliband, a man as ambitious as he is affable, has been harbouring a secret: he isn’t really a Blairite at all. Sure, he was a member of Tony’s gang from the start, backed him immediately as John Smith’s successor and served as his policy chief in opposition and in Number 10 before becoming an MP in 2001. He grasped completely the need for Labour to modernise — and he knew where the action was, too.

It is certainly true, furthermore, that Mr Miliband is Blairesque. English, middle-class, tall and presentable: the semiotic echoes are obvious. Like his mentor, he has an annoying habit of lapsing into Estuary English (to which he adds his own verbal tic of getting plurals wrong, e.g. ‘this has been going on for six month’). Like Mr Blair, he is afflicted by verbless sentences: ‘Ten years in government. New challenges. Time to learn the right lessons and move on.’ And, just like Tony, he loves comparing politics to football: ‘I’m a great believer in the Arsene Wenger school of management’ etc, etc.

But Blairesque is not the same as Blairite: countenance is not the same as ideology. I do not mean to exaggerate the differences between mentor and protégé, but those differences are significant, especially in the current, febrile context.

By the end of his decade in Number 10, Mr Blair had come to a number of fundamental conclusions about the need for really radical reform of the public services. He embraced the argument for dramatic structural changes, especially in education, for greater involvement of the private sector in service delivery, and a recognition that ‘co-payment’ — top-up fees by customers — would be essential in the future. Too late, of course.

With Blair gone, the standard-bearers of this reforming philosophy are dyed-in-the-wool Blairites like Stephen Byers and Mr Milburn, and the Cameroons, especially George Osborne and Michael Gove. Mr Miliband buys some of this — but only some of it. Personally, he favours the phrase ‘double devolution’, which means delegating some power to citizens — but plenty to town halls, too. If you trawl through his speeches and articles, you find that he wants power to be devolved only ‘to the lowest appropriate level’.

According to one advocate of Miliband: ‘The real Blairites actually have great reservations about him. They fear there are echoes of planning, and a bit too much of the Labour party.’ On the last point, their reservations are surely justified. Unlike Mr Blair — and this is surely the crucial point — Mr Miliband was born into the socialist movement, being the son of the great Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband. This much he has in common with Mr Brown, who was born into the tradition of Scottish Presbyterian Labour personified by his father, the Revd Dr John E. Brown.

Mr Miliband is a high-tech Fabian, not a factional Blairite. When I first encountered him, he was secretary to Labour’s Commission on Social Justice, whose findings laid out a blueprint for progressive taxation, egalitarianism and social reform. The commission was instigated by John Smith in 1992, but its final report was not published until after his death. The new leader, Tony Blair, did not so much shelve the volume as hide it in the attic.

But, for all his modernising credentials, Mr Miliband never forgot his roots. As Environment Secretary, he said that ‘green had to be the new red’. In all the verbiage about his Blairite background, his passionate traditional belief in social justice, collective action and the need for government action is easily forgotten. But he could not have been clearer than he was in his response to a Green Alliance announcement in February last year: ‘I don’t believe we will tackle this problem unless you understand and feel to the fundamentals of your being what market failure is, and what collective action is required in order to correct market failures.... It’s totally legitimate for people to wake up in the morning and believe that the extension of liberty is what makes them get up in the morning — politically that is an important strand of thinking. It doesn’t happen to be mine.’

Tony Blair would never have said such a thing. Nor would he have edited an academic collection of essays called Reinventing the Left, as Mr Miliband did in 1994. In the introduction to that volume, the young policy wonk wrote that ‘advanced industrialised societies are corrupted in fundamental ways by inequalities of income, opportunity and perhaps above all power’. He also directed readers approvingly to the chapter on socialist economics by a certain highly intellectual member of the shadow Cabinet: Gordon Brown.

Who could have imagined, 14 years ago, that the two men would become such ferocious rivals for the crown? Different, of course, but so alike in so many ways. Both sons of the Labour tribe, both profoundly cerebral, both believers in active government. So my message to the comrades is: relax. If you make Mr Miliband your leader, you will be electing not a wicked neo-Blairite, but one of your own.