Labour : a New Generation Takes Control

May 16, 2011, 1:12 AM GMT+0

Fifteen times he said it in a single speech. Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, told his party conference on Tuesday that there was now 'a new generation' running the show. And it was intent on bringing about change, a word he used thirty times. But is the change envisaged by the new leader the sort that will restore his party to power?

There has certainly been a lot of change in the last week. Until the result of the leadership election was actually declared on Saturday afternoon, it was Ed’s elder brother, David, who was the favourite to succeed Gordon Brown. Now David Miliband is bowing out of frontbench politics, to leave his brother 'a clean field', his political career quite possibly over for good. Such is the brutal world of politics.

In his leader’s speech, Ed Miliband began to set out what he meant by change and his definition was couched very largely in opposition to what New Labour and the governments it had formed in the last thirteen years had represented. It was not that he wanted to rubbish the whole record or the leadership of the previous generation. Far from it. He praised both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and paid tribute to the achievements of their governments of which he was a part, first as adviser and finally as cabinet minister. But after the party’s second-worst electoral performance in nearly a hundred years he had to admit they had got a lot wrong.

The list was pretty extensive. University tuition fees, the erosion of civil liberties, the near-doubling of the prison population, the failure to spot the consequences of large-scale immigration, inadequate regulation of the City, the toleration of fat cats and the growth of inequality were all cited as evidence of why the party needed to change its approach. It needed to change its way of doing politics too. There had been too much reliance on focus groups and not enough willingness to lead rather than follow public opinion.

But two criticisms of recent Labour governments stood out because they seemed aimed at distancing the new leader from his two predecessors. The Labour government had been foolish to claim that it had succeeded in ending “boom and bust”, as Gordon Brown had so often boasted. And on the issue which ended up defining Tony Blair’s premiership, the war in Iraq, the decision to wage it had simply been ‘wrong’.

It is this claim that may have finally persuaded David Miliband that he could have no place in his brother’s shadow cabinet. For the senior Miliband brother, as foreign secretary in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, had continued to defend the war, for which he had voted, even as public opinion turned so strongly against it. His younger brother, not yet an MP when the vote was taken, claims always to have been against the war, though his critics say there is no real evidence that he ever raised his voice on the matter.

For the time being at least, the political demise of his brother and the way Ed snatched his wafer-thin victory are likely to dog his leadership. In some people’s eyes his behaviour towards his brother is little short of political fratricide. It is not just that he chose to run against his older and politically more senior brother, though this astonishes some people. (Jon Cruddas, the independent-minded MP on the left of the party who nonetheless supported David, remarked that a brother fighting a brother would never happen in his family.) It’s more that by being so outspoken on Iraq he sealed his brother’s fate.

Quite aside from such family matters, the nature of his victory is likely to cause the new leader some problems too. For in the complicated procedure for electing a Labour leader, involving a three-way split between MPs, activists and trade unions and carried out on the alternative vote system, David remained ahead until the final round and even then commanded a majority among MPs and activists. In short, Ed’s margin of victory, of just over 1%, was won simply with the aid of the trade unions.

Defenders of trade union influence in the Labour Party will say that there is nothing wrong with this since, after all, the trade unions founded the party and continue largely to finance it. But Mr Miliband’s dependence on the unions for his victory is likely to be exploited by the Tories.

In the Commons, David Cameron seems bound to remind the new Leader of the Opposition that he has the support neither of a majority of his own MPs nor of his party members. And every time the Labour leader does something that can be interpreted as pandering to union interests the charge will be made that he is simply doing their bidding.

At the very least his burying of New Labour is likely to be painted by his opponents as bringing Old Labour back. Ammunition for such a charge was even provided by the former leader, Lord Kinnock, at a fringe meeting at the conference. He said: 'A trade union delegate leaned over and said, ‘Neil, we’ve got our party back’. I thought that was so accurate as an instantaneous response to the leader’s speech.'

Before long, however, politics will be dominated not by how Mr Miliband became leader of the Labour party or how he treated his brother but by the government’s planned spending cuts, to be announced in late October. This week the International Monetary Fund praised the government’s stated intention of getting rid of the deficit in its finances by the end of this parliament. But many highly respected economists and commentators think this strategy is a big gamble that risks plunging the economy back into recession.

Mr Miliband has hinted that he may take an even stronger line against the government’s plans than Labour is already doing. And if, as seems possible, he appoints Ed Balls as his shadow chancellor, such a move seems certain. If the economy did then grind to a halt after the cuts package started to be implemented, Labour and Mr Miliband would seem prescient. If it didn’t, the new Labour leader would still have time to fight another day as the next election general election is not scheduled until 2015.

By then Mr Miliband will need to have fleshed out just what he means by the change he says the new generation is intent on bringing about.

  • What’s your view? Do you think Ed Miliband is the right choice for Labour?
  • What do you make of the way he has handled the rivalry with his brother?
  • Do you think he genuinely wanted his brother to join the shadow cabinet or do you think he made it impossible?
  • Was David Miliband right or wrong to leave frontbench politics?
  • What do you make of Ed Miliband’s criticisms of the Labour governments of the last thirteen years?
  • What changes would you like the new generation of Labour leaders to bring about?
  • And do you think the new leader will be able to restore Labour’s electoral fortunes?