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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ed Miliband wins as New Labour dies

In a contest that could hardly have been closer, Ed Miliband defeated his brother for the Labour Party leadership by a margin of 50.65% to 49.35%.

As many commentators, including Lib Dem Voice's Stephen Tall, have observed, Ed's victory was heavily dependent on trade union support to overcome his brother's strong backing from MPs and party members.

In making his acceptance speech, Ed deliberately distanced himself from the era of Blair and Brown, pledging to "turn the page" with "a new generation [that] has stepped forward to serve our party...today the work of the new generation begins". During the four-month campaign, Ed had repeatedly severed ties with Labour's past, criticising its record on Iraq, tuition fees and immigration.

He spoke positively of change: "I am going to show that I understand the need to change" he said. Exactly what form this change would take is the subject of much speculation, but it is clear that Ed wishes to move the party in a different direction to his predecessors. Recently, he declared New Labour to be "dead"; yesterday he killed it off altogether.

Roy Hattersley, writing in The Guardian, was particularly optimistic for Labour and its electoral chances under its new leader. "Labour [now] has a leader who...believes in the principles of social democracy...he knows that...a naturally progressive majority in Britain is waiting to support a genuinely radical party with an unapologetically radical leader." In describing Ed Miliband as a moderate, Hattersley suggests he has a distinctive personal philosophy: "He wants to see a more equal society and he knows that equality and liberty - far from being enemies - go hand in hand."

Perhaps this is true. If so, the new Labour leader shares a philosophy with many Liberal Democrats and this perhaps suggests that his unfair attacks on the Liberal Democrats' leadership during his campaign were motivated by opportunism rather than principle. One thing on which I would unreservedly agree with Roy Hattersley is his assertion that "Ed...is more likely than either of [his fellow leadership candidates] to steer a new course." The question is: what will that course be?

I lost any enthusiasm I had for Ed Miliband when his campaign appeared to deliberately attempt to appeal for union support and endorsements. As we see now, this was a defining tactic. But I became unnerved by some of his rhetoric, his apparently anti-business stance, his apparent willingness to return to the left-wing politics of the past and his ill-informed attacks on the coalition. Publicly stating an inability to work with Nick Clegg was far from mature, but pledging to "make the Liberal Democrats history" was a step too far in my view. Bipartisanship and pluralist politics didn't seem to feature in his thinking.

It may be no bad thing that New Labour has been officially put to death. It has been dying slowly, and without much in the way of dignity, for some time. Even at its height, it was morally vacuous, representing little in terms of principle and as time progressed it became harder to identify what Labour actually stood for. This is a key challenge for Miliband - not, as was the case for Kinnock, Smith and Blair, to make Labour electable - but to make them distinctive. In doing this he must go beyond merely creating a new brand, but in successfully forging a party of convictions and original ideas.

Of course this won't be easy. Ed wasn't able successfully win over his party with much conviction. But now he is elected, I imagine both he and his party will be determined to work towards a new future in which Labour can be both convincing and united. The benefits of having emerged victorious from a leadership contest means that Ed will be unlikely to be subjected to the same intrigues and plots as his predecessor; the importance of party unity was evident in his speech. "I have to unify this party and I will" he declared.

Ed faces a few imminent challenges. Having been considered as the underdog during the leadership campaign he has rarely come under pressure and this could show in the coming weeks. The first thing Ed will have to do it distance himself from the unions in the same way he successfully distanced himself from New Labour. Already, his political opponents have sought to exploit the fact that he was the beneficiary of the trade union machine. Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi has stated that "Ed Miliband...was put into power by union votes. This looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party". Tory MP Margot James commented that "trade unions - the paymaster and kingmakers of the Labour Party...I think Labour will be even more in hock to unions and Ed Miliband will be boxed in to opposing deficit reduction." Stephen Tall, writing for Lib Dem Voice, has also suggested he was the beneficiary of union voting and an undemocratic electoral system. Countless media commentators have referred to him as "Red Ed".

I don't agree with this tactic and that's not only because I reject the stereotype. I didn't care for the cynical way in which Ed courted the unions, but now he's Labour leader and he will have to deal with the consequences. It is Ed, and not the coalition, who will have to work with the General Secretaries of the unions if their unrealistic expectations are not met. I don't believe for a minute that Ed will take policy dictation from the likes of Derek Simpson or Dave Prentis. He won't allow himself, or the party, to become a puppet of the unions but there is little doubt that his election will have given the unions a boost, and he may have to deal with the inevitable political ramifications.

There has also been criticism within Labour, with one MP saying "I think this will trigger a constitutional crisis in the party. It is complete madness that we can be seen to have a leader who was put there by the unions."

What should the Lib Dem reaction be? I think outright hostility, of the kind Ed showed towards ourselves in his own campaign, would be counter-productive. Also, opportunistically portraying his as being in the pocket of the unions not only lacks evidence at this stage, but would only serve to inflate the unions' perceptions of their influence. It is not for Liberal Democrats to indulge in the facile caricaturing so loved by the tabloid press.

I think we're better to leave alone the narrow issue of the role of the unions in electing the Labour leader. If this election has triggered off uncertainty within Labour about the democratic basis of their internal elections, or if it makes some Labour supporters uneasy about the influence of the unions, then that is positive. But Labour's democratic processes are an issue for Labour - not ourselves. Ed has to persuade his party that he represents their interests rather than merely those of the unions.

What is an issue for ourselves is how Ed Miliband responds to the pressing issues of the time. Most obviously, in relation to the Comprehensive Spending Review, will he simply side with UNISON's Dave Prentis who claims to "look forward to working [with Ed] to challenge the coalition Government and its regressive cuts agenda", resisting every cut for short-term political advantage? Will he, as Margot James suggests, "be boxed in to opposing deficit reduction"? That is the easy route, but it is not the responsible one and if Ed does opt for the easy option he deserves all the criticism he will inevitably receive for his short-sightedness.

If, however, he resists the temptation to oppose all cuts and develop a sensible approach to economic recovery then there would develop genuine opportunities for them to make a real contribution towards a broad, multi-party consensus on responsibly reversing the economic legacy of the previous government. I am optimistic he will decide not to opt for short-term boosts in the polls as this will, inevitably, compromise his credibility.

So far, all the Labour Party have argued is that cuts might jeopardise recovery. There has been little else in the way of argument, either convincing or otherwise. This populism can not deliver in the long-term. The responsible action would be to outline a more sophisticated response which accepts the necessity of some spending cuts while setting a distinctive vision for Labour. Certainly, in this era of "new politics", if Miliband genuinely wants to demonstrate an appetite for change, he could develop a more collegiate and less tribal approach towards the coalition.

The difficulty for Ed is that the coalition has a clearly defined strategy for the economy. Neither he, nor Labour, have such a considered road map to recovery. He will clearly not want to associate himself too closely with a coalition accused of making deep public sector cuts, but similarly he can not be seen to be opposing for the sake of it - or for the sake of the unions. Voters are unlikely to take him seriously unless he is able to offer a new, sustainable and realistic vision of how to effectively handle the economy. Admitting the necessity of spending reduction would be a welcome start.

On the forthcoming AV referendum, Ed has an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership, conviction and more pluralist approach. He might have benefitted from union votes, but he also was elected by virtue of the AV system, which Labour feels is sufficiently good for choosing its own leaders but not for electing Prime Ministers. An advocate of voting reform, Ed will know too well that the easy route - and one favoured by many within his party - would be to sabotage the poll in order to destabilise the coaltion. What Ed might also appreciate is that being seen by the public to be opportunistically obstructing a policy it backed in its manifesto will not reflect too well on his own party. There are also benefits to being preceived as above the politics of tribal beligerence. He might appreciate that working amicably alongside Liberal Democrats (and others) in the "Yes" campaign could lead to developing relationships of vital importance in the future, especially as an outright Labour victory in 2015 is far from assured.

The final word (unusually) goes to Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP: "Ed Miliband's first test will be next May's Scottish elections". Not perhaps his first test. But the Scottish elections will be a major test of Ed Miliband's leadership, and of whether he is seen as credible and in-touch. Again, given the unlikelihood of an outright Labour majority, Ed should tone down his language regarding the Lib Dems. He must forget the rhetoric of treachery and betrayal and reach instead for the language of common ground and shared progressive tendencies. Not only would it pay dividends for Ed's public image, a closer working relationship with the Lib Dems in the devolved asssemblies could actually have a greater impact on destabilising the Westminster coalition than cynical opposition.

In short, what Ed Miliband must do is resist easy options, challenge preconceptions, show himself as willing to transcend tribalist politics and project himself as authentic and principled. If he can do this, he may prove to be a Labour leader we can do business with.

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