THE BLOG

Deconstructing the Miliband Myth

04/06/2015 13:04 BST | Updated 03/06/2016 10:59 BST

The wheel of fate has turned and the warring Milibands lie rent in twain by their own ambition, until one returns from exile - and his name shall be David.

The Labour leadership is in transition and the media's hungry to render a classic story of feuding brothers symbolically complete. The Spectator has recently described David Miliband as "the prince across the water," the high language conveying a desire for events to play out like an Arthurian saga. This is how the myth goes: two brothers vie throughout their youth and at the first contest the younger wins. The elder flees in humiliation, but the younger ultimately fails. The elder returns and at the second contest he triumphs, or, if you like your myths bleak, he too fails. Karma complete.

Yet we are not dealing with men from the time of Noah or Achilles but two Shiraz socialists from a lefty academic household whose politics were more about front room dinner party networking than frontline coalface activism. Ken Livingston was a family friend. Later, both Milibands worked in the cabinet under Gordon Brown. In their heads they were fighting for the rights of the workers but in their cushy careers it was all about jobs for the boys.

Still, both brothers have behaved in ways that unconsciously corroborate the myth. They may scoff at legends about fraternal rivals but actions speak louder than words: Ed Miliband got the 2010 Labour leadership and David Miliband left the country and never came back. He behaved like a wounded warrior who would rather destroy himself than bear the shame of defeat and the pain of seeing the victor all the time and having to take orders from him. A non-mythological response would have been to stay in the shadow cabinet, where the success of his brother boss would first rankle then be worn smooth by their day-to-day interactions. That is what Hillary Clinton did when she lost her presidential nomination bid and accepted a role as Secretary of State. But then, she and Obama aren't siblings.

Competing for the same leadership role at the same time is the type of faux-coincidence that delighted Freud: the moment the unspoken subtext becomes explicit. The Milibands subconsciously engineered a contest which only one brother could win, while the other would be struck right to the core, souring everything he had worked for his entire life. In a 2013 interview, in which he correctly speculated about the Tories winning an outright majority this year, David Miliband told Andrew Marr, "these things, you can never erase them from memory or history." Sure, personal memory's tough - but history? Who does he think he is? God's not watching the Milibands, carving their fortunes onto a marble slab to preserve in a cosmic library for eternity.

And I do not agree that Ed Miliband won the symbolic battle, even if both brothers saw it that way. David Miliband's downfall in little England was his making in the wider world. He took the moral high ground and his work now is more humane, compassionate, global and far-seeing than the increasingly insular pettiness of English government - something he warned against at the Harvard Kennedy School graduating address this year. The world has benefitted much more from David Miliband's directorship of the International Rescue Committee, the human rights organisation which helps refugees, than from whatever Ed's been doing.

I wonder if Ed now sees himself as having been crushed by a juggernaut of familial karma which has been building for five years and if David feels crude satisfaction or a plangent sense that had he been leader, things would have been different. Perhaps they are both now dissatisfied, natural justice having dealt with them equally.

The non-mythical truth is that both the Milibands are rich, successful, well-connected white men with fulfilling family lives. Their existential pain is laughable compared to the genuine suffering of the people the IRC helps. But I guess it's easier to see yourself as a wounded hero being pushed by epic grudges beyond your control than to get over yourself and email an estranged sibling.