David Miliband is a quitter - how dare he criticise Jeremy Corbyn?

David Miliband speaking in New York in September 2016 (Getty)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

As many will have read this morning, David Miliband has taken the opportunity to put the boot into Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leadership contest draws to a close. He accused Corbyn of making Labour unelectable, and taking the party further away from power than it has been in 80 years.

One is tempted to suggest Miliband knows a fair bit about being unelectable. He was a key part of Gordon Brown’s Labour government, which inherited a sizeable Parliamentary majority but ended up being booted out of power by a Conservative Party which was moderate at best. Then he backed Liz Kendall in last year’s Labour leadership contest, only for his fellow Blairite to achieve just 4.5% of the vote.

Yet there’s another, far more important question to be asked about Miliband and the validity of his comments on Corbyn. Given his repeated refusal to risk his own political reputation, how can we take seriously his criticism of those who are actually putting theirs on the line?   

People talk about Miliband as if he were Britain’s lost genius, a man who could have sorted out all Labour’s, and the country’s problems if only his party hadn’t marooned him by taking a disastrous leftward lurch.

Yet the reality is Miliband has marooned himself. He has had plenty of opportunities to assume centre stage in the Labour Partry and take on the sort of messianic rescue mission which, as an acolyte of Tony Blair, he might feel is his natural duty. As president of the International Rescue Committee, one would think he had the perfect grounding for the job.

Yet Miliband's sense of duty doesn't seem to extend to his former Labour colleagues.

The one time Miliband did stick his neck on the line, when he took part in the Labour leadership contest of 2010, he probably thought it was a foregone conclusion. No-one was going to vote for his brother, a geeky leftie who had never held a heavyweight ministerial role during Labour’s time in government. Miliband the elder was the heir to Blair. He couldn't lose.

Except he did lose. Ed Miliband came from nowhere to win the Labour election, propelled by a tidal wave of union support. The result must have been a savage blow to David. One can only imagine how devastated he must have been, and how he must have resented the Labour rank-and-file for rejecting a creed which had brought 13 years of power - or "turning the page backwards" as he later described it.

After that shattering blow, Miliband could have remained a senior figure within the Labour Party, backing his little brother while providing a voice of centrist reason. He could have helped Labour mount an effective opposition to David Cameron, and helped Britain negotiate the worst economic crisis in a generation. He might even have talked Ed out of changing the Labour membership rules and allowing any Tom, Dick or Trotsky to join the party for just £3.

Instead he drifted from view, retreating to the safety of the back benches. In February 2012 he said that he didn’t want a role in the Shadow Cabinet because he was wary about creating “a daily soap opera” around the perceived split in the Miliband family. A year later he resigned as an MP and left for America.

David’s supporters will suggest he did the right thing, and in fact had no other option but to accept the 2010 leadership election result and give his brother some space. But, given the experience he could have offered Ed, this seems a limp excuse.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Miliband had steered clear of the limelight. In 2008 he had been mentioned as a potential leadership challenger to Gordon Brown, but had demurred. In 2009 he was reportedly preparing to resign from the Cabinet in protest at Brown’s inept leadership. But he didn’t.

This summer a number of Labour MPs appealed to Miliband to come and save them, some suggesting that he could contest the Batley and Spen by-election created by the murder of Jo Cox. But again Miliband decided to stay on the sidelines. At the time a source close to Miliband was quoted as saying: “He is concerned about what’s happening with Labour but his focus is in America right now.”

If his focus is 4,000 miles away, one is tempted to suggest he isn’t that concerned.

Miliband is clearly a bright bloke. It has even been suggested he will be given a top US government role if Hillary Clinton is elected president. Given the palpable lack of talent on both front benches, British politics can ill afford to lose its best and brightest.

But by taking the easier path so often, Miliband has forfeited his right to criticise others. This writer is no fan of Jeremy Corbyn or his dangerously infantile view of the world. But at least the Labour leader has always stuck to his principles and, when the going’s got tough, he’s been there in the thick of it.

As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, it's not the critic who counts, but "the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood." Perhaps David Miliband should reflect on these words before wailing from the sidelines again.