The protracted period of post-election navel gazing is over and Labour has finally elected a new leader. Ed Miliband now heads Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, becoming standard bearer for the Left and baiter in chief of the Coalition Government. Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, will be relieved: The bookies have already lengthened the odds on Labour winning the next election.
David Miliband was the candidate most feared by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Foreign Secretary for 3 years, the elder brother already has the gravitas of a national leader and global statesman, vital for any politician aspiring to become prime minister. His previous roles as Blair’s director of policy throughout Labour’s successful first term, and architect of the 2005 election manifesto that won a historic third, meant a proven record in the twin essentials of politics: campaigning and delivering.
A moderate with widespread appeal, David Miliband’s candidacy was a credible threat to the Government: He would have placed Labour firmly on the centre-ground, challenging Cameron’s progressive conservativism. Such a centrist Labour Party could even pose an existential threat to the Lib-Dems, whose social democratic elements look deeply uncomfortable with their leader’s traditional liberalism. Presumably the Labour Party knew this. After four rounds of counting Labour parliamentarians voted for David Miliband by 53.5% to Ed’s 46.5%, and ordinary Labour Party members did so by 54.5% to 45.5%. The figures are unambiguous – the Labour Party wanted David Miliband as its leader. But Labour insists its leader is head not only of the party but of a wider labour movement, so trade unionists get a vote too.
The unions overwhelmingly supported Miliband-the-younger (60% to 40%), swinging the electoral college to Ed by the tiniest of margins: 50.65% to 49.35%. It was a swing leftwards. It may make the path back to power too great a distance. His strength in the unions demonstrates Ed Miliband’s appeal to the core Labour support. It is this that will make Cameron and Clegg sleep easier.
Trade unions are heavily dominated by public sector workers who amount to 61% of members but only 21% of the British workforce. As such, the unions represent the policy interests of a small minority of the population. Enjoying their support is no indication a candidate will appeal to the country at large. Private sector workers have been unsympathetic to union activity, expressing frustration at increased taxes on their recession-hit incomes paying for more generous public sector salaries, pensions and working conditions. Think-tank Demos suggest Labour’s decent approval ratings mask a deep unpopularity amongst key sections of the electorate who see this big state as a hindrance. Tony Blair, the most electorally successful Labour leader ever, states Labour’s hopes of governing depend entirely on winning the support of Middle England. It is they who determine elections, and their interests and concerns are not those of the core Labour support.
In his leadership campaign Ed Miliband openly called for the party to renew its appeal to the working class. This is a highly questionable tactic for anyone hoping to win an election. If as leader Ed Miliband orientates his party to the left he will produce a party true to its ideals and comfortable in its skin, but one confined to advocating from opposition rather than delivering in government.
Time will tell if Ed has the strategic vision to return Labour to office. That vision requires a party of the centre, attracting a broad coalition including the middle class voters without whom neither main party can govern. Running to the left may have been a tactic necessary for him to achieve the leadership, but a volte-face is required in his new campaign for the premiership. In choosing Ed over David Labour may have deeply damaged its viability as an alternate government. The country needs a productive and credible opposition capable of winning an election to bring the best out of the government. Whichever side we prefer in power, democrats of every colour should hope the Left’s new man is more than just an advocate of its views.
By Mark McGeever