Politics is often a very cut and dry affair when it comes to the people who participate in it. Issues and ideas are spun into a confusing web of rhetoric and style, but reputations can rise and fall within a moment. For David Miliband that moment was 15 months ago when Ed, his brother and political rival, won the Labour leadership election.
Never mind the three years spent as Foreign Secretary, nor his various roles at the heart of the Blair government; the brotherly contest stuck because of its symbolism. David’s actions for the foreseeable future are defined in many people’s minds by the outcome of the leadership contest – an outcome which left David as the loser.
However when I met with David before his talk, alongside other student media, the man before me had seemed to come to terms with what had happened. Although there was considerably more enthusiasm for speaking about foreign affairs, there was an acceptance that questions about his relationship with Ed, and the comparisons and differences between them, were a part of his political life and not something he could merely sweep aside.
On being asked whether in the next few years he saw his role as a thinker, a creator of ideas, or as a frontline politician. “I am going to try and do what’s best to support the party to win the election and win the confidence of the people. I think that’s hopefully partly about ideas. I’m doing a commission on youth unemployment at the moment. I founded a leadership academy for community organisers, training 10,000 across the country. I am also keeping up my interest in foreign policy. I did some teaching in Stanford in America.”
“I hate being in opposition, you can only talk – you can’t really do anything”
But sensitive to the subject we are skirting around, he feels the need to openly address his absence from the front bench in the House of Commons. “I think I made the right decision not to go into the Shadow Cabinet, if that’s what you are asking, because I think that would have reinforced the soap opera.”
Politics as a whole is often seen as a soap opera, one that you would do best to escape from. But Miliband spoke, and stood as a man who didn’t appear to intend to escape just yet. Of course, it is only too easy to be deceived by the political rhetoric of a politician on a comeback, but within the realms of false propositioning, authenticity is surprisingly transparent. Milliband delivered his various responses at York with a sense of vision and focus, not just on short-term policy and politics but with a grander perspective – the desire to change the world was still apparent.
“The truth is, when people say how are you doing? I sort of say, well I hate being in opposition and that’s because you can only talk – you can’t really doing anything.”
Perhaps the easiest way for Miliband to go after losing out on the Labour leadership would have been to recline to the edges of politics, slowing preparing to leave completely and take up a role in a global organisation or lecture in America. But instead Miliband is visiting twenty universities across the country – fading into the distant background does not seem on the agenda.
His mannerism and tone of voice hark back to Tony Blair; and although his greeting felt like he was asserting dominance in the conversation before I had even begun to speak, there seems to be more substance to him as a politician than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps the art of spin is so embedded within him it has become indistinguishable from his real beliefs; but just maybe this is what Labour, or politics in general, is missing at the moment. There is a growing discourse that says Miliband would, and still could, do a better job than his brother; and that is hard to question dispute when you see him talk forcefully about global issues. Statesman-like almost.
But Miliband wouldn’t be drawn on explaining anything he would have done differently to Ed. “I think that he is standing up to David Cameron, but he is doing it in his own way and he is not trying to copy Cameron or Blair or anyone else which I think is the right thing to do.”
He seems to accept the position he now finds himself in. “I am not going to speculate. It’s better not to get into a hypothetical situation. So I’m supportive of the leadership of the party and accept what happened and I’m not going to create any sort of alternative. We are different people with different approaches, but he won the job so it is up to him to do it.”
This pragmatic view on family relations seems to highlight his approach to politics. By facing questions rather than side-stepping them this should surely make his position stronger. The first rule of any political scandal is to admit to it, one large hit of condemnation and then hopefully it will die away. Miliband seems to be taking this approach to his own problems, hoping that by answering these awkward questions face-on they will soon cease to be asked.
However while Ed remains Labour’s leader and while feeling is more of indifference rather than warmth towards him, questions will always be asked because David was the alternative. But politics changes fast and Miliband’s conclusion that today’s politics is as unpredictable as ever, leaves the door open for him to return.
“I think we are in a very open period of politics, I think anything could happen at the next election and obviously the Labour party has to put itself in a position in terms of ideas and in terms of organisation that scales the mountain which was presented by our big defeat at the last general election.”
He muses later on about the qualities of leadership, claiming that passion is more important than vision, “if you haven’t got passion you are not going to be able to motivate or engage anyone and your vision will be desiccated if it isn’t backed up by passion.” It was clear that Miliband himself still had the passion, why else would he go on a tour around twenty universities? But has he got the drive and capability to overcome the hurdles that have presented themselves in his way over the last few years? From the way he talks, there is no reason to doubt that.
His sound bites are as good as anyone’s, “Lib Dems present themselves as partners, I think they are the puppets” and his jovial comment about it being ironic that he has set a leadership academy shows the path he is trying to head down. But it seems, this sense of humour and outside perspective on parties and situations, has arisen and been clarified from not being part of the cabinet. And it is precisely this ‘view of the underdog’ that is now playing to his strength; he can see what’s going on, what needs to be done, because he isn’t at the eye of the storm.
It is a position that, in any job, can facilitate for a window of opportunity. It is not inconceivable to see David take the leadership away from Ed after a general election in 2015, the fact that “anything could happen” perhaps is why Miliband is still in the game – waiting for his opportunity to arise again.
More likely is a return to frontline politics and the Shadow Cabinet at some point over the next few years. This is something he hopes can be realised again in his career. “I hope Labour’s back in government again and I hope that I’m still older enough, or younger enough, to benefit from it. You don’t know what the future holds, but of course I want Labour to be back in government, being in government is an enormous privilege and it is sort of what politics is about.” That sense of frustration permeates his words again- he is a man of action and openly acknowledges the restrictions to a politician whose party is not in power.
As Matthew Festenstein, the Head of Politics at York, brought the public talk to a close, he praised students and staff for their “awkward questions”; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Miliband mouth to his interviewer “they weren’t that awkward”. Maybe his intellectual powers and political skills were not tested to their full amount then, but it seems that he will get chance to fully utilise them once again if the current fluctuating world of politics paints out a path for his return. “It often takes a Tory government for people to remember what they miss out on with Labour one,” the unpredictable nature of politics that has forced him to reconsider where his career is going, may also be the catalyst in starting his climb back to the top.