Those of you who have not been hiding under rocks all summer may have noticed that the Labour party has been busy. Nursing their wounds after losing the election and vigorously opposing many of the coalition’s proposed cuts, they’ve also been weighing up the contenders to succeed Gordon Brown.
What has felt like an interminable process of hustings and campaigning across the country has seen the five contenders not so much battling for the leadership as politely discussing their differences: it’s been remarkably civil, but very healthy for the party as a whole. The last time there was a contest was in 1994, when Tony Blair took over after the death of John Smith – and even this was supposedly impacted by a secret deal between him and Gordon Brown, meaning the latter would not stand in the way of the former.
An open, free contest, allowing a frank post-mortem after the effective collapse of New Labour, was exactly what was needed. New leadership couldn’t hurt either.
Each of the competitors has managed to differentiate themselves from both the former regime and their competitors. For long-serving back-bencher Diane Abbott, though, this was hardly a challenge. Poetic as it is that Britain’s first black, female MP should have the chance to become party leader 23 years later, she wouldn’t have secured enough nominations to stand but for a last-minute endorsement from David Miliband, and didn’t even win the vote in her own Constituency Labour Party. She was eliminated in the first round of voting with just 7.42% of the vote.
Then again, as many commentators have pointed out, victory was never the point of her campaign: well-known to be on the left of the party and having opposed the Iraq war among other New Labour policies, she has provided a foil to the major contenders. Detached enough from the Blair and Brown regimes to criticise from a position of relative safety, she has done exactly that – pointing out, amidst other issues, that the people surrounding her were all criticising a government they were in – and from the point of view of many grassroots activists, hers was a voice that needed to be heard.
Next in the vote came Andy Burnham, who became Shadow Health Secretary after taking that brief in government. Originally from Liverpool, Burnham has often played up his “working-class” roots in his condemnation of Conservative policies, and has been attending Labour party meetings since before he was old enough to join. His commitment to the party is well-known, but he is still relatively new to politics, having only entered the Cabinet during Brown’s tenure. His comparative inexperience and less established public persona went against him in this election, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that he had little chance in a contest dominated in both the party’s mind and the media by the political heavyweights, the brothers Miliband and Ed Balls.
Shadow Education Secretary Balls was for some time considered a genuine contender in the contest, and always looked fairly strong in hustings. His long-time allegiance to Gordon Brown is well documented; he was Brown’s chief economic adviser for 10 years, which ensured him speedy promotion to the Cabinet just two years after he became an MP in 2005. However, this would also appear to have been a double-edged sword – it was easy to portray him as a candidate offering no real change, and he has earned himself much of the opposition that was afforded to Brown by certain factions within the party. It would seem that, after the pain of the end of Brown’s premiership, large sections of the party preferred one of the more Blair-like Milibands.
David (the elder one, just in case) was the front runner from the moment Brown announced his resignation, having almost stood against him in 2007: a known Blairite, leading light of the Cabinet during Labour’s later years, and former Foreign Secretary, who made clear his intention to claim the centre ground from the beginning. With the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives, he claimed, Labour could become “a great unifying force” for the centre-left – a strategy which would also see Labour pick up the votes of disenchanted liberals to boost their support at the next election. Significantly, he is the candidate most closely associated with New Labour and has warned against the party reverting to its left-wing “comfort zone”.
Ed, meanwhile, has done the opposite, cautioning against a return to the “New Labour comfort zone”. His decision to stand against his older brother surprised some at the start of his campaign, despite his established support. The biggest boost to his campaign, however, came from trade unions – all three of the major unions recommended him, and most of the smaller ones, which significantly detracted from the support some unions were expected to extend to Balls and Burnham. He performed impressively in hustings, and is seen as slightly more left-wing than his brother. The nickname “Red Ed” has sprung up around this, although it would be a stretch to see him, and his intention to defend the “squeezed middle” class, as decisively socialist – in fact, his father, the late Marxist philosopher Ralph Miliband, would probably see both of his sons as “sell-outs”.
So, how do we explain Ed’s victory? The answer lies in the complex voting system used to determine the outcome, where MPs, party members and union members each constitute a third of the vote, and second, third and fourth preferences are accounted for.
Looking at the breakdown of each round of voting, Ed’s union support is obvious, though David polled higher amongst party members and MPs. Moreover, in three of the four rounds David was slightly ahead.
However, most next preferences among Abbott’s voters went to Balls and Burnham. Burnham’s voters were fairly equally divided, giving roughly an extra 3% to Balls and 4% to each Miliband, but more of Balls’ voters went for Ed (boosting his total by 9.4%) than David (about 6%). This suggests that Ed picked up more next preferences from people who had voted for more strongly socialist candidates than David.
The numbers imply that Ed’s success stems from occupying a strange left-of-centre middle ground – just socialist enough to appeal to those who preferred Abbott and Burnham, but central and Blairite enough to be electable. David, having stuck so closely to the centre, didn’t have the same appeal among the old Labour supporters, and as a result narrowly missed out.
For most of the candidates, the consequences are straightforward. Abbott will return to the back-benches. Burnham and Balls can probably expect nominations for the Shadow Cabinet. Only for David is this less simple: having probably missed his best chance to become leader, rumours have suggested that he could leave politics altogether and forge a new career. Meanwhile, serving in his brother’s Shadow Cabinet could either serve to divide the party (as in the Blair/Brown years) or unite them – as Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Chancellor, for example, the brothers Miliband would be in a close working relationship which may soothe David’s supporters. Importantly, they could also form the nucleus of a very solid team, which would be a potential threat for a government defined by its (supposed) internal differences.
Ultimately, it’s the formation of a solid Opposition that matters from this election. Speeches at the conference may set out the stall for the future, but given the political and economic situation, Labour has a mountain to climb. Moving on from their defeat in May might be hard enough, but if they are to make Ed Miliband the next Prime Minister, they will have to reclaim lost public confidence as well as thousands of their core voters. With 32,000 new members having joined over the course of the campaign, the rehabilitation may have begun. Time will tell if it can end happily for them.