Labour contenders: David Miliband

David Miliband

It was meant to be the ultimate compliment from a friend and political mentor.

But David Miliband will be hoping Tony Blair's 2006 description of him as the Wayne Rooney of the cabinet does not come back to haunt him when the votes are counted in the Labour leadership contest in September.

Like Rooney, who returned home from the World Cup with the boos of disillusioned England fans ringing in his ears, the shadow foreign secretary began the contest amid sky high expectations. He was the first to enter the race and the early favourite at the bookmakers.

But he will know that in politics, as in football, the line between triumph and disaster can be a very fine one indeed.

And there are some in the Labour Party who would argue that he has already had his chance and blown it - when he failed to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership in 2007 and again, in 2009, when he decided not to follow his friend James Purnell over the top, when he quit the cabinet in protest at Mr Brown's leadership.

Snappy put-downs

David Miliband had been talked up as future leadership material by the Blairite wing of the party for so long that for a moment it looked as if he might be destined to join the ranks of great leaders that never were.

But judging by the number of MPs and local constituency parties that have publicly backed him since he launched his campaign, he is still seen as a prime-minister-in waiting by many Labour people.

FORM GUIDE

  • AGE: 44
  • FAMILY: Married, two children
  • BACKGROUND: North London Comprehensive school, Oxford university, left wing think tank, Downing Street
  • POLICIES: Social justice and a strong economy
  • STYLE: Tieless, Blairesque, slightly earnest
  • KEY SOUNDBITE: Labour can be a "great unifying force on all shades of centre left opinion in this country".
  • RANDOM FACT: He played in goal for his school football team

He has told the BBC he was "not ready" to be prime minister in 2007, but denied this meant he lacked the killer instinct to be an effective leader, saying: "'I think its about good judgement and I think I did the right thing for the country, because it was important in the middle of an economic crisis to have a strong government, but I also think I did the right thing for the party because I wasn't willing to make a bad situation worse."

As the leadership contest got underway in June, he even felt confident enough to help a rival candidate, Diane Abbott, on to the ballot paper in an effort to ensure the field was not confined to white, male, Oxbridge-educated former New Labour ministers or, indeed, with younger brother Ed throwing his hat into the ring, members of the Miliband family.

He told the BBC he was not annoyed by Ed's decision to challenge him for the leadership, saying it was better to have his ambitions out in the open to avoid "seething resentments".

David Miliband has by far the best funded of the five leadership campaigns, with financial backing from, among others, Lord Sainsbury, who pumped millions into the Labour coffers during Tony Blair's heyday, and Dave Rowntree, sometime Labour election candidate and the drummer in rock band Blur.

Heavyweight Blair era figures such as Lord Falconer and Alastair Campbell have also thrown their weight behind him.

Indeed, some have detected the hand of Mr Campbell in his snappy put-downs of David Cameron and George Osborne, who he described in an interview with the Daily Mirror as "Thatchers in trousers" and Nick Clegg, who he has branded their "dumb waiter" or "nodding dog".

Labour leadership profile: David Miliband

Eye-catching soundbites like this have not always come easily to Mr Miliband, who cut his teeth as a backroom "policy wonk" at a centre left think tank and in Downing Street before becoming an MP in 2001 in the ultra-safe seat of South Shields, in Labour's North-East of England heartland.

Alastair Campbell nicknamed him "Brains", after the Thunderbirds puppet, when he worked in Tony Blair's policy unit. It was probably meant as a compliment but the unworldly "geek" tag has been hard to shift.

It was hardly helped by a 2008 picture of him grinning awkwardly, banana in hand, at that year's Labour conference, which was seized on by his Conservative critics.

'Marmite' candidate

Supporters say the experience of dealing with constituents in the North-East has given him a much-needed grounding in how the average voter thinks. He has said it "opened my eyes, changed the way I think".

But the self-consciously populist tone of his campaign website - which urges people to "Join the Movement for Change" on its front page - suggests his image overhaul is still a work-in-progress.

David Miliband Mr Miliband may have regretted his choice of lunchtime snack

"David was born into a left-wing household," it says in the "About David" section.

"His Dad was an academic, his mum a campaigner and teacher. But his first love was not Marx or Engels, it was playing football - all his waking hours."

To emphasise the point that David is just like one of us, a "Top Ten" list informs us that his "snack of choice" is a a Twirl and his favourite book is The Gruffalo (he has two adopted children with wife Louise, a violinist).

Opinion polls suggest David Miliband will gain the most first preference votes from Labour members - under the complex electoral college system the party uses to elect its leaders - but he may struggle to pick up second and third preferences, leading to claims he is the "Marmite" candidate - people either love him or hate him.

Gaining enough support from union members, despite endorsements from USDAW and Community, may also prove a problem, given his association with Blairite reforms to the public services.

He began his campaign by speaking about the need to move on from the Blair/Brown era and as the contest has gone on he has become increasingly frank about the failings of the government of which he, as environment secretary and then foreign secretary, was such an integral part.

'Managerial arrogance'

In a lecture in early July, he said he had agreed with Gordon Brown about the need for "greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture" but added that it had just not happened under Mr Brown's leadership.

Indeed, he went on, "far from correcting them, failings - tactics, spin, high-handedness - intensified; and we lost many of our strengths - optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope".

The party had alienated voters with its "managerial arrogance" and had not gained enough for the country in return for bailing out the banks, he argued.

HOW VOTING WORKS

  • Each section makes up a third of the final result:
  • 1. LABOUR MPs and MEPs - David Miliband scores highly here with nominations from more than 80 MPs
  • 2. PARTY MEMBERS - Polls suggest he will gain the most first preference votes but could lose out on second and third preferences
  • 3. UNION MEMBERS - Potentially the weak link despite early endorsements from two smaller unions

And in a piece of political clothes-stealing of which his old mentor Tony Blair would surely approve, he said David Cameron's vision of a Big Society, of more civic-minded citizens, "should be taken seriously", arguing "it was territory Labour should never have allowed the Tories to colonise".

He has also stressed that the party must be about more than trying to gain short term advantage over the government, telling the BBC: "We've got to look forwards, because this coalition is not going to collapse in the next couple of weeks, it's gripping power and it's going to try and hold power and we've to think about the Britain we want in 2015 and 2020 if we are to be a credible force in the future."

David Miliband has also been the most enthusiastic of the five leadership contenders about changing to the Alternative Vote system for Westminster elections, as he has sought to embrace the "new politics".

At the same time, he has defended the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while acknowledging it remains a hugely divisive issue in the Labour Party.

And in contrast to brother Ed who was credited with writing it, he has steadfastly refused to criticise Labour's 2010 general election manifesto.

In other words, he is treading a delicate line between establishing himself as his own man - and shifting the stubborn, unhelpful Blairite tag - and not trashing Labour's record in office, of which he remains proud.

Most observers still expect him to pull it off.

But, as England's Number 10 discovered in South Africa, years of meticulous preparation, media hype and the best backroom staff money can buy are no guarantee of success when the final whistle blows.

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