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Uphill battle: Ed Miliband’s challenges as Labour leader

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Ed Miliband’s election as leader of the Labour Party at its party conference in September marks a departure from the Blair-Brown era. The new leader was quick to criticize the key policies of his predecessors in his maiden leadership speech, notably apologizing for the Iraq war and his party’s record on civil liberties. With the right-wing press already labeling Miliband ‘Red Ed’ for his perceived closeness to the trade unions, some see this as the end of the ‘New Labour’ project. What challenges face the new leader of the opposition as he attempts to redefine his party? And how will the ruling coalition government react?

Miliband’s first test will be to unite his party. The election was hardly a ringing endorsement. Having trailed throughout the contest Ed narrowly defeated his older brother David, the former Foreign Secretary and front-runner, in the final round of voting by picking up more second preference votes from supporters of the eliminated other candidates. The final result produced no clear mandate for Ed, beating David by less than 1% of the vote. Moreover, even though more Labour MPs and party members wanted David, Labour’s complex electoral college voting system allowed Ed’s overwhelming support from the trade unions to push him over the finish line.

Though David publicly took the defeat with good grace, emphasizing the pride he felt for his brother’s success, his immediate decision to decline Ed’s offer of a shadow cabinet position and to quit frontline politics has prompted fears of divisions in Labour. David was the most Blairite of the five leadership candidates and the one considered most likely to win back the southern and middle class votes lost in this spring’s election. He consequently attracted support from the right of the party including former New Labour heavyweights such as Peter Mandelson, who expressed his distaste for Ed’s left-leaning tendencies during the leadership campaign. The fact that the younger brother’s’ victory eventually depended on union support seems to have exacerbated these fears on the right.

On top of this, David’s activists and supporters have raised questions about Ed’s character. Some have called Ed’s decision to stand a ‘betrayal’ of his brother, who had always appeared to be the leader in waiting. If the new Labour leader cannot unite his family, so goes the argument, what hope does he have with the party? This more ruthless side of the new leader was similarly seen immediately after his election when he dismissed Gordon Brown’s long-term ally Nick Brown as chief whip, suggesting a departure from both the Blairite and Brownite legacy. Amidst these lingering doubts, David’s decision to quite frontline politics is thus a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he has given Ed the space to carve out his own identity and policies. On the other hand, the elder Miliband’s unwillingness to serve under his brother might establish him as the focal point for any internal opposition to the new era.

As well as the difficulties uniting his own party, the Labour leader must take up the challenge of opposition to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. With the government’s comprehensive spending review out on October 20th, Miliband and his new shadow cabinet must decide on their approach. They have three main options. They could continue with the policies of the 2010 Labour manifesto to propose cuts that would only halve the budget deficit during the course of this parliament, rather than the government’s goal of eradicating it all, but this could appear merely a regurgitation of Gordon Brown’s unpopular policies. Alternatively they could listen to defeated leadership candidate Ed Balls, eager to be appointed shadow chancellor, who argues for a much slower timetable to reduce the deficit. This would avoid the painful cuts that the government plans, but would position Labour far further left than they have been in years. Finally they might choose to bypass any comprehensive approach to the deficit, opposing each cut on its individual merits rather than suggesting a full alternative cuts agenda, though this might appear toothless and light on substance.

Another key question is how to handle the wave of public service strikes that are looming on the horizon. Having tacked to the left to outflank his brother, many question whether Ed will now revert to the centre ground and be more cautious in his approach to the trade unions. In his maiden victory speech, Miliband was quick to state that he would not be supporting, “waves of irresponsible strikes,” and warned against the, “historic union failures”. While Miliband may not want to appear in the unions’ pockets after their help in his election, it is certain that leaders such as RMT chief Bob Crow and Unite’s Charlie Whealan will feel emboldened by having kept David and the Blairites from power. With the strikes looming, Ed will have to tread a careful line that balances his support on the left without appearing to vindicate the right-wing press’ ‘Red Ed’ label.

Then there is the question of how the government will react to the new Labour leader. Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron had said before the leadership election that it was David Miliband who he most feared as a potential opponent given his appeal to the centre. The leadership outcome presents greater problems for the Liberal Democrats, many of whom retain their doubts about being in coalition with Cameron. Ed’s immediate departure from the Blair-Brown era, notably his apology for the Iraq War, could well entice back voters who abandoned Labour in 2005 and 2010, especially if the coalition’s cuts continue to hit the poorer sections of society.

Most importantly, how will the general public react to the new leadership? Early opinion polls suggested a slight boost for Labour following the leadership contest, but it could be up to five years before such data is actually tested in a general election. This is both a blessing and a curse for Ed Miliband. He has the luxury of time to carve out his own political philosophy, unite his party and strategize how best to position himself and Labour in order to return to power. This gives him the opportunity to enhance his public profile. Yet at the same time, with the toughest cuts due in the next year, he must provide an effective opponent to the government almost immediately. British politics face a battle of narratives in the coming years, one of cut now or cut later. The longer Ed takes to find and promote his own voice, the more Cameron and his coalition will look like the natural party of government, however unpopular their agenda may seem.

Ed Miliband may have surprised many by usurping his brother to become leader of his party, but he now faces the far greater challenge of shaking off the image of leftist insurgent to fashion himself as the potential leader of his country.