Bowing Out Gracefully

Last night I attended what will likely be David Miliband’s last political appearance in the UK before he moves to New York to become President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Mr Miliband was speaking at an event organised by the campaign group Progress (disclaimer – of which I am a member), often referred to as the Blairite wing (or faction, to use the comradely parlance) of the Labour Party.

The event was off the record, so I won’t repeat anything that Mr Miliband said.

Not that there were any sudden revelations – and that isn’t a criticism.

Instead, the audience heard what most people (of most political persuasions) would likely expect – intelligent, articulate and passionate political discourse and reflections from a man who (whether one agrees or disagrees with his political philosophy) has undoubtedly had one of the biggest impacts on UK public policy of the last twenty years.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering that one of Mr Miliband’s first jobs was as a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, which became one of the most influential think tanks in developing the ideas that would shape the (as then) yet to be born New Labour.

Just as important, from 1992-94 he was Secretary of the Commission on Social Justice, which although probably forgotten now by non-politicos, had been set up by the then Labour Leader John Smith to work out new approaches to welfare. Again, it was a hugely influential piece of work in developing New Labour policies, as were two 1994 books on the future of centre-left political theory and policy which he edited – ‘Reinventing the Left’ and ‘Paying for Inequality’.

Then of course, from 1994 to 1997 Mr Miliband worked as Head of Policy for Tony Blair, becoming Head of the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit when Labour entered Government. Therefore, appreciating David Miliband is essential in understanding New Labour’s first term in office.

By Labour’s second term, Mr Miliband had of course become an MP himself. And it was only after a year on the back benches that he was promoted straight to Minister of State level, responsible for schools. Again, his impact was visible, with the Government embarking on a programme to rebuild and refurbish every secondary school in England.

In December 2004 he was appointed a Minister in the Cabinet Office, but it was following Labour’s third General Election victory in May 2005 that he began to have his next big impact, being appointed as de facto second-in-command at John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (and joining the Cabinet for the first time too) as Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, where he pushed for the creation of city regions. Indeed, I remember my first job in lobbying involving liaising with his Department over the creation of “urban parishes”.

However, before he could implement the new thinking that he had brought to urban policy, Mr Miliband was moved in a Cabinet reshuffle following Labour’s poor showing in the May 2006 local elections, becoming Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Interestingly, that reshuffle was seen at the time by nearly all of the media as a last throw of the dice by Tony Blair, whose authority as Prime Minister was waning. Why, after all, move David Miliband after only a year in the job?

What many missed was that Tony Blair was thinking more long term, giving David Miliband experience of running his own Department of State and positioning him in the front line of challenging the “Vote Blue, Go Green” environmental platform that David Cameron (then only a year into the job of Leader of the Opposition) had fought those local elections on.

And it worked, because whilst Mr Blair was gone in little over a year, David Miliband had risen in stature to the point at which he already seemed the heir apparent to Gordon Brown, who promptly appointed him Foreign Secretary when he became Prime Minister in 2007 (after much speculation that David Miliband would be given a merged Energy and Environment super ministry).

We all know what happened in the Labour Leadership election following Gordon Brown’s departure, which is why I won’t go over all of that.

But I suspect that most people outside the Westminster Village will not be so aware of David Miliband’s history prior to running for Labour Leader.

Which is why I’ve thought it worth recounting here, and why David Miliband surely bows out gracefully from British politics, after arguably having had as big an impact as any Labour Leader could hope to.

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