Labour star flees ‘soap opera of two brothers’

Lifelong enemies: Four famous sibling pairs who went head-to-head © Getty Images

David Miliband once seemed to be Labour’s leader-in-waiting. Instead, it was the younger Ed who claimed the top job. Now the defeated brother has resigned as an MP to move to America.

When 2010 saw Labour suffer its first election defeat in 18 years, Gordon Brown, outgoing prime minister, resigned. Who would replace him? Bookmakers and pundits agreed that one man stood out as the heir to the Labour throne: former foreign secretary David Miliband.

Four months later, as the contest drew to a close, Miliband was still the favourite. But the final round of voting brought an enormous shock. By less than one percentage point, David had lost out on the success that had appeared to be his destiny. And the rival who had deprived him of it was his younger brother Ed.

Since this famous sibling rivalry handed him such a public defeat, David Miliband has avoided frontline politics and been cautious about playing any role in frontline politics. Now he has withdrawn still further from his previous career by accepting a job as CEO of the charity International Rescue. He will resign his seat as an MP and move to New York.

‘Politics is a poorer place,’ said Ed Miliband. And David offered supportive words in return, praising his brother’s ‘real success’ in ‘taking the fight to the Tories’. But some Labour insiders suggest that this brotherly camaraderie is an act. ‘David is not even at first base in forgiving Ed,’ claimed one.

Whether or not that is the truth, the fratricidal narrative has dogged both Milibands for the past two years. Ed has been constantly mocked as the ‘wrong Miliband’, while journalists scan David’s every utterance for a hint of rebellion or dissent. He has made no secret of the fact that this ‘soap opera of the two brothers’ is behind his decision to leave.

Did sibling rivalry destroy the political career of a man former US President Bill Clinton calls ‘one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time’? Perhaps – though some suggest he may return.

But this ferocious competition could be what has made the two brothers such high-flyers. According to psychologists, sibling rivalry can help develop intelligence, communication and social skills – as well as giving children a drive to succeed.

Brothers in arms

From the moment a younger sibling comes into the world, the two children constantly compete for attention, status, dominance and parental pride. Every moment of complacency or weakness is an opportunity for your rival to succeed. What better training could a child want for a life of struggle?

But some people find this worldview excessively harsh. There are better motivations for success, they say, than constant insecurity and an all-consuming need to defeat someone else. Competition might be useful up to a point; but for real success, we must put aside our egos and work together.

You Decide

  1. Would you trust a pair of siblings to run your country?
  2. Is constant competition the best training for life?


  1. Pick one pair of siblings presented in the image at the top of this article (not the Milibands), and write a description of their relationship. Did it help or hinder them in the end?
  2. Make a political cartoon about the relationship between David and Ed Miliband.

Some People Say...

“I would rather be an only child.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So if I’m an only child then I’ll be stunted?
Not at all. It may be true that arguments between siblings help to improve social skills. But on the other hand, some studies also suggest that only children are more likely to be happy and succeed. Ultimately, these are interesting generalisations at best – your place in your family isn’t what defines your status, your personality or your abilities.
So what else might have made the Milibands so successful?
The Milibands both put their political drive down to the environment they grew up in: their father, Ralph, was a prominent Marxist historian with influence and connections on the British left, while their mother was a respected activist. Both brothers admit that they owe much to growing up in a refugee family where political debate was constant.

Word Watch

Final round of voting
The voting system by which Labour elects its leaders is rather complicated, with MPs, party members and trade unions all playing a role. It uses an ‘alternative vote’ system: if no candidate gets a majority in the first round, those who opted for the lower-scoring candidates have their votes redistributed to their second choice. Although David Miliband won the first ballot, he was less popular as a second choice than his brother.
Sibling rivalry
This phenomenon is widely documented not only in humans but also among other animals. In extreme cases (such as that of black eagles) offspring may even kill one another to guarantee more parental attention.
Frontline politics
Although David Miliband has stayed on as an MP until this week, he has not taken a position in the shadow cabinet, where the opposition is led from.
International Rescue
Not the one from Thunderbirds. International Rescue was founded to help those suffering under Nazi rule, and provides humanitarian aid to countries suffering or recovering from conflict and oppression. Miliband says he is ‘repaying a personal debt’, because organisations like this helped his Jewish parents to escape occupied Poland in 1940.
‘Fratricide’ is when someone kills their brother. Some famous examples include Cain and Abel in the Bible and Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. In David and Ed’s case it is of course metaphorical.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.