We should take a David Miliband comeback seriously…it really could happen

We should take a David Miliband comeback seriously…it really could happen


As MP nominations for Labour leader close, Keiran Pedley argues that the main person to watch is not standing.

David Miliband is on manoeuvres. There is no doubt about that. Having been out of the spotlight since moving to America, he now clearly intends to make his presence felt. He has made several high profile interventions in recent weeks on where Labour (and his brother) went wrong. Such interventions in politics are rarely accidental. They are planned and for a purpose. David Miliband wants people to remember he still around. Some are even speculating that he could return to frontline British politics to lead the Labour Party into the 2020 General Election.

The case against

So is a comeback possible? There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. Not everyone in the Labour Party is keen. John Prescott recently declared the Miliband era ‘over’ and told the elder Miliband to ‘shut up’. Many are sceptical that David Miliband would have fared better in Scotland or had a better argument against UKIP on immigration. Perhaps more importantly, there is little evidence that David Miliband is any less ‘weird’ than Ed in practice. Looking to the future, it is also not clear whether the party wants another ‘Blairite’ for leader, as Liz Kendall may yet find out to her cost.

All of these points are valid but a comeback is still very possible.

Labour’s best chance

In politics, public perception of a leader’s credibility is what matters first and foremost. Actual policy detail comes second (though of course the two do end up related).  Such credibility is hard won but can be built over time. The fact is that David Miliband already has it. A recent poll by YouGov shows Miliband the elder more likely to encourage voters to support Labour than any of the current crop of leadership candidates. This is not an isolated finding. A poll by Survation conducted shortly after the General Election showed the public backing David Miliband for Labour leader too.

Are these polls just name recognition? Sure, to a point. However, what matters is that the public see David Miliband as credible. The perception lingers that he is the ‘right brother’. Whatever your politics, the simple truth is that people see David Miliband as someone that can face the Prime Minister at PMQs or chair a meeting of COBRA. This is important at the best of times but for a Labour Party desperately trying to be taken seriously again by the British public it takes on added significance. If you want a leader that immediately makes Labour seem electable again, it’s David Miliband.

No easy task

Of course, there are lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ here. For David Miliband to become Labour leader again he would need to be back in parliament. This will be no easy task and he will need to take lessons from Boris Johnson about how to navigate such a return carefully – without creating a sense of ‘entitlement’ that will alienate. By that time there will already be a new Labour leader too. Loyalty will be demanded. Time, as they say, will have moved on. As with Boris, nothing is guaranteed.

The comeback is on

However, if David Miliband does decide that he wants to return, he will immediately become one of the most important figures in British politics overnight. Do not underestimate how much this will shift the political landscape. The ‘Prince across the water’ will become the ‘Prince next door’. A plum Shadow Cabinet role will surely follow. Of course, there will be no vacancy but you do get the impression that Labour might not be as loyal to the new leader as it has been in the past. If things are going badly, a change might be made. Alastair Campbell has said as much already. Even if there is not, there will be a world beyond 2020 too.

So as improbable as it sounds at first, a David Miliband comeback is possible. Just as Hilary for America felt very distant in January 2009, David Miliband for PM really can go the same way if he goes for it. You just get the feeling that the last chapter in David Miliband’s political career is yet to be written. Perhaps it will not be as Labour leader, but looking at the current crop of candidates you cannot rule it out.

Keiran Pedley is an Associate Director at GfK NOP and presenter of the podcast ‘Polling Matters’. He tweets about politics and polling at@keiranpedley. 


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