Thursday, 4 April 2013

David Miliband and the big beast famine

The most important news about David Miliband’s departure is, of course, that it is by no means news.

Journalists were last week making all kinds of wild claims, that this would somehow upset the delicate balance between Miliband’s core team and the remaining Blairites in the cabinet, as if the latter’s secret leader had suddenly been whisked away in the midst of plotting revolution.


The truth is more mundane, of course: Miliband senior was hardly, at this point, at least, the ringleader of some turbulent band of plotting Blairites. He was merely decently trying to stay out of everyone’s way and put together an alternative political life, in which he was not constantly examined for signs of fraternal betrayal. In his decision to emigrate, he has merely been a grown-up and recognised his own failure in that most impossible of tasks. What would have been extraordinary news would have been for him to accept a place in his brother’s cabinet. The die was cast in October 2010; this is just the inevitable endgame.

Where it leaves us, let’s be honest, is exactly where we were before: in a world where the big beasts who bestrode earlier generations are all but extinct.

This is ever more tricky in a world where politicians do not have what Denis Healey’s wife, Edna called “hinterland”. As the great man told Rafael Behr in a recent interview:

“None of them have that in either party. In my time, people didn’t start earning money until well into their life in politics. Now people can get a career out of politics as soon as they leave university. They don’t have experience of the real world.”
Indeed, this phenomenon is not just confined to Labour – after all, aside from Ken Clarke, who has Cameron got in the “silverback” category? – but if we want to win and win properly, we need to act with a little more mature wisdom than the prime minister has over the last twelve months.
Miliband has, since his election as leader two-and-a-half years ago, lost all his remaining big beasts. To be fair, it is his largely no fault of his own, but that’s how it is.

David Miliband effectively went at his brother’s election; Alan Johnson went shortly afterwards; Alistair Darling never even started the race; and the departure last year of the party’s only other big figure, Livingstone, while in the end a blessed relief, leaves him with a set of senior frontbenchers whose senior members are in largely in their forties. None has held any of the four great offices of state .

Neither had Blair or Brown before 1997, you might reasonably argue: true. But they had also built up formidable reputations beforehand, reputations subsequently cemented by landslide victories. Ten years later, Brown himself largely won the leadership because no-one considered themselves a big enough beast to run against him, and because he would almost certainly have pulverised anyone who did.

Yesterday Jonathan Todd argued here for the bringing of Johnson and Darling back into the big tent. While it is possible and the sentiment of not wasting precious talent is to be applauded, it also looks unlikely. Darling has already held the no. 2 role in government, and there is surely no chance of moving Balls this side of the election. Would he really want to come back into Cabinet as an odd-job man?

Johnson is not going to Home or Treasury, either, where he has already been. There are so few ways to play these “Tetris strategies”, and most would surely involve firing Douglas Alexander, one of the small number of truly capable players at his disposal (no, Yvette Cooper is not going anywhere, either). And neither can one imagine either Johnson nor Darling being truly at home with the Compass-style “fluffy Labour” approach which Miliband sometimes lapses into.

When you are a political leader – like any other kind of leader – your number one priority is getting top people around you. It is not possible to do very much yourself when you’re the top dog, so your capacity to get others who will, and who are also star performers, is essential.

Ah, people stuff. Business guru, Peter Drucker had it right:

“The toughest decisions in organisations are people decisions – hiring, firing, promotion etc. These are the decisions that usually receive the least attention and are the hardest to unmake.”
Clearly, the less choice you have in this critical task, the less effective your team is likely to be.

It is also easy to criticise politicians for not putting party first – as many have Miliband senior in the last week – and say they are honour bound to come to their party’s rescue. But they all have lives, too. It is futile, as well as unreasonable, to expect them to always make selfless, party-centric decisions, although it is nice for us when they do.

No, it seems that Ed Miliband is probably stuck where he is. It is not that there is no talent – there is plenty. What are missing are long years of experience to guide and hone that talent. It is frustrating, but he will have to get by with the team he has, by and large. We are where we are.

All he can do is try and get his big ideas straight – a task on Miliband’s to-do list which is surely well past its due date – and just hope everyone can take on the big jobs, quickly.

If, that is, Labour were to win. Still a very big “if”.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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