Denis MacShane: David Miliband gets my vote – a leader not afraid to say No

WHY should anyone want to be Labour's next leader? An iron law of Left politics is that whoever is chosen to lead a party in the wake of a significant election defeat never becomes the next prime minister.Labour needed three leaders after 1951 and five after 1979. It is the same in Europe or Australia or Canada where parties of the reformist Left have chopped and changed leaders as they try to win back power.

Since I like and admire most of those putting themselves forward, I am tempted to forgo my privilege as an MP and nominate no-one. There is a fateful chance that whoever wins is condemned to be a Moses leading Labour in the wilderness but not to the promised land of power.

We have to assume that the Con Dem coalition is good for five years. It may fall apart but the drug of power is the most addictive intoxicant democratic politics knows. It took Tony Blair five years to New Labourise his party. It took David Cameron just five days to Blairise his party. The Lib Dems have allowed Cameron to escape the straitjacket of Thatcherite, xenophobe politics.

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The coalition looks like one that Harold Macmillan or Edward Heath would have been happy to head. As with Disraeli accepting voting reform and free trade to make the Conservatives electable in the 19th century or Baldwin building on Liberal social policy to soften the edges of hard-faced Toryism after the First World War, Cameron is not changing many of New Labour's reforms. And if Labour had won, we would have had to take tough public spending decisions. To be sure, our priorities would have been different but the explosion of debt and deficit would have to be tackled.

Instead, we are trying to find our Obama but with an election not necessarily due until 2015. Who then to choose? My inbox has been clogged up by hundreds of identical importuning appeals that I nominate John McDonnell. The problem is that after 16 years as an MP, and endless hours spent in the tea room or cafeteria as well as too much time on Labour's conference and seminar circuit, I do not know what

Mr McDonnell stands for other than a root and branch hostility to

Labour in government. Since I want Labour to be back in government, I am not sure supporting Mr McDonnell makes sense.

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Diane Abbott is an elegant colourful fish who swims against the stream. I get up early so have never seen her late night jousts with the BBC's resident Europhobe Andrew Neill and the ever original Michael


I liked her courage in sending her son to one of the most expensive private school in London. For any other Labour MP, this would have led to automatic de-selection but such is Ms Abbott's cool chutzpah she got away with it. I admire her criticism of those who pander to the immigration scare politics and the xenophobic "British jobs for British workers" line. But a future PM? Hmm.

So we have the Eds, les frres Miliband, and Andy Burnham. I like them all. Burnham I have seen turn on an audience with an easy wit and charm that hides profound analytical intelligence under a folksie footie Lancashire style.

Ed Balls is the intellectual architect of the New Labour economic project. He is the continuation of Gordon Brown by other means. A progressive statist to his very core and a skilled tactician in press point-scoring – a necessary art in politics – Mr Balls has earned the right to put his name forward.

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The other Ed Miliband is close to being the nicest and yet deeply thoughtful man in European politics. Courtesy, good manners, a sense of humour and a willingness to listen and concede points in argument are rare in politics.

But I know of no decision that the two Eds, both protgs and confidants of Gordon Brown, have ever taken that showed personal independence against their erstwhile master or a willingness to tell harsh truths to supporters.

Last November, I was a personal witness to David Miliband turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In one of the shabbiest, most sordid deals in European political history, a handful of Eurocrats decided – without reference or consultation – that the two top posts under the Lisbon Treaty would be subject to a carve-up. The Right would get the presidency of the European Council. The Left could have the foreign policy supremo and vice-presidency of the Commission.

The President of the Party of European Socialists flew to London to offer the latter job to David Miliband. Paddy Ashdown told me that Miliband would be mad to turn it down. The young Foreign Secretary had captivated European leaders with his strategic intelligence and his intellectual command of policy. Not since Anthony Eden had a British Foreign Secretary made such an impact abroad.

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Now he was being offered five years of being at the commanding heights of world affairs. As defeat loomed for Labour, here was a chance to spring free and be in charge, not be in opposition.

The European Socialists insisted it was Miliband's duty to accept their offer. He sent them packing. He made clear in no uncertain terms that his duty and future lay with Labour, in Labour and to renew the Labour Party which had lost its way after the 2005 election.

As I witnessed Miliband's steely rejection of an offer that most would die for, that I saw an inner hardness and a willingness to make

personal sacrifice which was frightening in its intensity.

A few months later, I saw another example of David Miliband's

willingness to make unpopular decisions.

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The Western European Union is a parliamentary assembly set up in the 1950s to discuss defence issues. It has little point as both the European Parliament and the Nato Parliamentary Assembly cover the same ground.

Miliband rightly decided it was time to call time on the WEU. He faced a barrage of opposition from John Prescott and senior Tory and Lib Dem MPs who were members of the WEU and enjoyed its meetings and trips.

A softer minister would have rolled over. Miliband faced down his opponents even if it left cross MPs muttering in the tea room. But I want a Labour leader who can say No. To win the leadership all

candidates are trying to say Yes to each and every demand. All are thinking of today not of 2015. But, once in place, Labour's new leader will have to say No more often than Yes.

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Labour's next next leader is hidden in the ranks of a highly talented 2010 intake of women and men, black and white, who are still in their 20s and 30s. The nominations close today and there are four competent men who can lead our party. There is one who so far has shown the leadership to say No at key moments. That is why I will be voting for David Miliband.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Europe Minister.