Tuesday, 28 September 2010

‘Red Ed’ elected new British Labour leader

As political theater goes, there’s nothing quite like sibling rivalry played out on the national stage. Such a drama has been playing out in the UK over the past several months as brothers David and Ed Miliband fought it out to become the next leader of the Labour party. This week it all came to a thundering climax as the Labour party conference chose younger brother Ed to be their leader.

The choice was not just between two different branches of a family tree – it was between two differing political ideologies. Or at least that’s the way it was being presented. Older brother David was the anointed successor to Tony Blair, and he was firmly entrenched in the “New Labour” makeover created by Blair and Gordon Brown in the 1990’s. That movement pulled the Labour party to the right to make it palatable to middle England and therefore electable. It came shortly after Bill Clinton remade the Democrats in the same way in the United States, though the term “New Democrat” has become almost an irrelevancy as the Democrats have settled comfortably into their new centrist role. That was never the case in the UK, where a large part of the Labour party resented Blair and Brown for pulling the party to the right and longed for a leader to end the New Labour project and return the party to its socialist routes.

That section of the party thinks they have found their hero in Ed Milliband. Though Ed served as Environment Minister under Brown’s government, he was a newcomer and was not firmly part of the New Labour movement. Most of the votes for Ed came from the unions, who are eager for an opposition leader who will lead an aggressive fight against the budget cuts being pursued by the governing Conservative-Liberal coalition.

Upon winning the election, Ed seemed to realise that he had the left wing of the party to thank for his victory. He confidently told the crowd, “The era of New Labour has passed!” which was naturally met with thunderous applause from the unions. His older brother David was left to sheepishly slink off to the side, and now the big speculation is what he will do next. David has not only been beaten by his younger brother, he has had his very political philosophy challenged by him. David must now decide if he will stick with the party and take a place in his brother’s opposition (or “shadow”) cabinet. Ed will have his work cut out for him in convincing the New Labour Blairite stalwarts to stick with the party, and David would be key to that effort. If David abandons his brother, chances are other Blairites will head for the hills as well. Then again, considering that Ed says he wants to clean house and make a new Labour Party, such an exodus might not be an entirely bad thing.I'm sure right about now David is wishing he hadn't rejected the EU foreign minister post last year.

The right-wing papers have quickly jumped on Ed’s nomination as an indication that the Labour Party is going to veer to the hard left. Almost instantly they came up with the name ‘Red Ed’ for him – a name which has never been widely used before this week. The Daily Mail had a whole article yesterday revealing the ‘scandalous’ fact that Ed lives with his partner and their daughter “out of wedlock” (something not at all unusual in the UK, though it would be very strange for a politician in the US).

But both the jubilation from the hard left and the derision from the hard right seem premature. After all, not much is known about Milliband. He’s only been in parliament a short time, and he hasn’t been there for very many hard votes. He’s never made any pronouncements or made any votes that highlighted him as someone who would rock the boat. It seems unlikely that he will follow the same path as Blair and Brown, but what he will replace their governing philosophy with is anybody’s guess. It would be premature to say he will bring Labour back toward their social democratic colleagues on the continent. Many have their doubts as to whether a hard left Labour party in the model of continental socialist parties like the SD in Germany or the PS in France could enjoy any electoral success in today’s Britain. Hell, those continental socialists can't even attain success in their own countries.  But with all the uncertainty in today’s economic climate, the electoral prospects for a hard left labour party is an unkown as well. Still, in the short term, Miliband seems to be eager to shed the ‘Red Ed’ label that the Tory tabloids have given him.

I met Ed Miliband once, during a meeting of Environment Ministers in Are, Sweden. He was very friendly, he even walked up to me and a group of other Anglophone journalists when he heard us speaking English to introduce himself. Amusingly, he seemed to be happy to talk to anyone who wasn’t an environment minister right at that moment. He engaged in a spirited discussion with a Swedish journalist I was with about some very minute details of Swedish politics. No doubt about it, he’s a policy wonk. But does he have the charisma and confidence for the British public to see him as prime minister? He’s going up against two very charismatic party leaders – David Cameron and Nick Clegg. It’s an observable fact that he doesn’t have their level of charisma, but can his mastery of policy and his representation of change overcome that? It remains to be seen.

One other interesting thing to note is that now all three political party leaders are young men in their early 40’s. It’s a situation which, I would guess, is unprecedented in modern British political history. Will this new generation of post-baby boom leaders, who missed the turmoil of the 1960’s and came of age in the go-go 1980’s, represent a sea change in British politics?

All of this remains to be seen.


Kallisti said...

"David is wishing he hadn't rejected the EU President post last year."
"David is wishing he hadn't rejected the EU 'Foreign Minister' post last year."


Gulf Stream Blues said...

oops - thanks, well spotted!

Anonymous said...

The less attractive brother one. A victory for the ugly people of the world! I hope this means those of us who don't have perfect smiles and flawless skin still have a chance in politics.