Miliband–slipping away from South Shields
So, the MP for South Shields, David Miliband, has shuffled off to pastures new.
The media has concentrated on the alleged loss to the Labour project and British politics as a whole. I suppose it’s a narrative you would expect from a Westminster centric media, where the universe ends at the M25. I watched an interview on BBC News last week, where the BBC political editor talked to David Miliband and covered his career and his new job at the International Rescue Committee. The highs, the lows, the bad haircuts. South Shields was not mentioned once.
In the past I have had what best could be described as a mixed opinion of our MP here in South Shields. Sometimes I’ve been extremely critical, other times praising him. I’ve tried to sit down and objectively consider his impact as an MP for South Shields. It’s not easy.
I’ve never needed to rely on his assistance in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for South Shields. Those who I know who have gone to David Miliband for help have found him to be attentive and sympathetic, and willing to lend a hand if he could. When I’ve written to him with an enquiry, I have, apart from one instance, received a clear and timely response from his office. I don’t think I ever liked his answers, but at least he answered.
A criticism often raised is that he didn’t spend a lot of time in South Shields, but then again few MPs do. At least the time he has spent here has been well planned, with a full diary of events. He’s been in the right places (mostly) and said the right things.
As an ambassador for South Shields he has, I think, played a positive role. When he was minister at DEFRA he listened to the concerns of local environmental activists, and sought to bring local government together with environmental groups to exchange ideas. He did this by holding a conference, here in South Shields, not in London.
He has championed local business and with the likes of Colman’s fish shop, help put them on the map, and deservedly so. He has supported local charities and social initiatives like South Tyneside Credit Union (now Bridges Credit Union).
Although I’ve never attended the South Shields Lectures (except in a demonstration outside the event), I think they were an inspired idea by Miliband, bringing (albeit Labour) celebrities from politics and entertainment to the town to speak. I hope whoever is the next MP for South Shields will continue this.
And at least he timed his departure to the favour of the South Shields Labour Party. The previous incumbent, David Clark, deserted South Shields with such timing that the national Labour Party could parachute Miliband into one of the safest seats in the UK, sidestepping local party wishes. Reading the comments of South Shields councillor John Anglin, it’s clear that the 2001 fait accompli still rankles:
“We want to make sure we are allowed to choose our own MP, something we have not done in living memory.”
His voting record has been what you would have expected from an architect of New Labour and someone who had served most of his time in government as a minister – loyal. There have been times when he showed some heart, like his recent speech at the bedroom tax debate, and his liberal voting record on LGBT rights.
But those hints of a bigger person with a genuine vision were sparse. The loyalty mentioned above has meant he has voted for some of the most shameful policies for a British government in my lifetime. His support for the war in Iraq, the erosion of civil rights in the ‘War on Terror’. His voting silence on the NHS devolution risk assessment and Workfare. There is no way you could convincingly argue that he voted for the interests of the people of South Shields first and foremost.
In education, he championed the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project and has often cited this as a Labour legacy. Because BSF was a PFI project, it’s the kind of legacy that brings with it a debt to the people of South Tyneside that will haunt our children, with several decades of payments to the corporations that run the schools. As we’ve seen recently with hospitals close to closing because of PFI debt, we can expect the same to come to our education system unless someone intervenes.
As Environment Secretary, he behind the publishing of the Climate Change Bill, which was what at the time looked like a remarkable and historic achievement: setting targets for the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Sadly, those good intentions have now dissipated in offsetting and corporate compromise. The last ten years have shown that none of the three main political parties really take climate change seriously.
But in his role as Foreign Secretary is where I have the most concern, or rather, disgust. The treatment of the Chagossian people at his ministerial hands is nothing less than shameful, playing his sordid part in a long government injustice in keeping the people of the Chagos Islands from returning to their homeland. He was at the helm during extraordinary rendition and torture by our allies, and what admissions he made about the practices were imcomplete. At least he suspended some arms export licences to Israel during the Operation Cast Lead attacks on Palestine. Arguably though, those licences should never have been granted in the first place to prop up Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and accompanying land theft. Nevertheless, you’ve got to admire Miliband’s gall for resigning from Sunderland over the club’s appointment of Paulo Di Canio. Some lofty principles eh?
Miliband’s stint as Foreign Secretary should have been enough for a humanitarian charity like the International Rescue Committee to think twice about even shaking his soiled hands, not to mention consider him for their top job. I’m wondering where the ethical compass for IRC is really pointing.
So it’s a bit of a mixed bag; some good stuff, some bad. Very bad. Is there a definitive conclusion?
Prior to skipping town, David Miliband didn’t do a bad job for South Shields, and his impact was probably a net positive. And probably more so than his predecessor, who sat during one of the worst periods of South Shields’ history. As a government minister, it’s not so rosy. I’m not sure if I could have done those things, and then try to justify them to my children. From here it seems that ethics came second to his ambition. It’s the reason he came to South Shields, and the reason he left. Maybe that one word, ambition, could define his tenure.