Crunch time for Labour

Posted on September 15, 2010


The drawn-out process of selecting a new leader of the Labour Party is almost at an end. Voting finishes a week today, and the new leader of the party will be announced at the party’s conference in Manchester on 25 September. The contest, which has gone on this long so as to allow for proper debate over the future direction of the party but has left the party strangely directionless at Westminster, is as finely balanced as it could possibly be.

That is not to say that anybody could win it. It is a unanimously agreed that neither Diane Abbott nor Andy Burnham stand a chance, and will be battling against each other to avoid being eliminated first. Abbott is by far the most left-leaning of the candidates and has pledged to protect the public sector from cuts, scrap Trident and introduce a wealth tax, all policies that appeal to me (policies of all the leadership contenders can be found here). Yet she made few friends during the New Labour years with her unwielding criticism of the party, and there are well-founded doubts about her ability to lead the party in parliament. Moreover, the fact that she only made it on to the ballot paper through the late intervention of David Miliband suggests Abbott stands no chance of becoming leader. Burnham, similarly, has no body of support within the party. Whereas Abbott’s has at least added some substance to the debate and asked difficult questions of the party, Burnham’s campaign has been sedate and thin on detail. Lack of press attention probably hasn’t helped.

Ed Balls (Pic: Channel 4)

Most would also agree that Ed Balls, the Shadow Education Secretary, stands little chance of becoming top dog. Tenacious though he has been since Labourentered opposition, Balls is probably too closely associated with his former mentor Gordon Brown to stand a realistic chance of becoming the ex-prime minister’s successor as Labour leader. Moreover, his combative style has made him some enemies in the party. While Abbott and to some extent Burnham have managed to avoid being damaged by association with New Labour (ridicoulously, in Burnham’s case) Balls, who worked with Brown even before the party came to power in 1997, has been unable to escape such links. In spite of significant steps forward in recent weeks making him the obvious candidate to be Shadow Chancellor at the very least, he remains an outsider.

Yet links to the New Labour years, which all the candidates agree (though to varying extents) are over, has done little to prevent the contest from turning into a two-horse race between two politicians who, like Balls, were heavily involved in the transformation of the party under Tony Blair in the mid-nineties. The ‘Battle of the Brothers’ has dominated the coverage of the leadership election, no doubt to the detriment of the other candidates. Yet it was widely agreed from the start that David and Ed Miliband were the candidates with the best chance of leading the party. Yet the race has been more closely run than anyone could have predicted, and with ten days until the conference in Manchester it would take a brave man to place a bet one way or the other.

In spite of their mutual association with New Labour, those choosing between the two brothers do face a significant choice in terms of the future direction of the party. Though both agree that the party must move on from New Labour, David Miliband is careful about moving too far and argues against an outright rejection of the Blairite agenda. This has made him the preferred candidate of the Blairites, with the likes of Alistair Campbell and John Prescott backing the former Foreign Secretary and former PM Tony Blair barely disguising his preference for the older Miliband. His younger brother Ed is the more left-leaning of the pair, having called for the party to re-embrace radicalism and reach out to the unions. Though their late father, the Marxist thinker Ralph, would undoubtedly have considered them both sellouts, Ed is the more obviously socialist of the pair.

His overtures to the unions have reaped rewards. While it bewilders me that the unions continue to see  any benefit in affiliation with the Labour Party, affiliated organisations make up a third of the electoral college that will elect the party’s next leader (leadership election rules here). Ed has so far been the most sucessful in courting the union vote, receiving both funds and support from high profile unions. His careful political positioning has made him a genuine threat to his brother as the contest heads into its final stage. Indeed, a poll over the weekend had they younger Miliband slightly ahead of his more fancied brother when second preference votes are taken into account, and Ed has declared that he considers the momentum to be with him.

Miliband brothers: head-to-head (Pic: Telegraph)

I was disappointed that Jon Cruddas did not throw his hat into the ring for the leadership, and even more so by his subsequent strong support for David Miliband. If I was a party member, and I am not, my vote would probably be going to Ed Miliband too. Though New Labour undoubtedly found itself a middle class constituency that had evaded the party previously and turned itself into a formidable election-winning machine, it also lost touch with its core support: the working class and the unions. The working classes began turning elsewhere, some to the Liberal Democrats and some to smaller parties including the BNP. The unions’ affiliation has become largely worthless. Ed Miliband has suggested that the party under his leadership would reconnect with these constituencies, yet his connections with the old government means he would not seek to totally desecrate the New Labour ideology. As a compromise candidate between the Old Labour left and the New Labour right who can appeal to the idealism of a younger generation, the younger Miliband fits the bill.

We will have to wait a bit longer to find out which one of the brothers takes the ultimate prize. Whoever does take on the party leadership will have many questions to answer. How best to handle the beaten brother, with there already being suggestions that David Miliband will quit politics altogether if he were to lose? How to employ Ed Balls to best effect, given his success as coalition-baiter-in-chief and desire to take on the Shadow Chancellorship? How best to react to the stinging cuts planned by the coalition government? How to appeal to those displeased with the Liberal Democrats’ decision to team up with the Tories?

Either way, cuts are sure to make the coalition government quite unpopular, and Labour stand to gain from such a development. With the new regime by no means as stable as it would have us believe, the next Labour leader could well be the next prime minister, even within the next five years. Let’s hope they make the right choice.

Posted in: Politics