Miliband Succession Pits Blairites Against Labour Left

Should Britain’s Labour Party move further to the left or pick a leader who can appeal to voters in the middle?

Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party's shadow business secretary, makes a speech, March 30
Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party’s shadow business secretary, makes a speech, March 30 (Labour)

Ed Miliband’s resignation on Friday as leader of the British Labour Party opens up the race to find a successor who can do better in the next election. The choice — as it has been in every recent leadership election — is whether Labour should move further to the left or find its way back to the political center.

Miliband did even worse than Gordon Brown in 2010, giving Labour 232 seats in the House of Commons, down from 257. Many in the party will blame his leadership but the socialists are split on what exactly defined Miliband’s leadership.

Dan Hodges, a former party official, argued in The Telegraph the morning after the election that Miliband was wrong to anchor his party not in the political center where elections are won. “Instead, he decided to position it where it felt most comfortable,” Hodges wrote — “on the left.

Miliband would not apologize for Labour’s mismanagement of the economy when it was last in power until the final days of the campaign. Throughout David Cameron’s premiership, he railed against austerity — only to pivot in Labour’s election manifesto by promising no new borrowing.

Leftwingers will say this was Miliband’s mistake; that he accepted the need for austerity and therefore voters supported the party that brought them austerity in the first place.

This is not borne out by the polls. Labour’s popularity had been falling since 2013 when the British economy started to improve. Miliband’s last-minute conversion to fiscal sanity did not cost Labour the election.

Ian Leslie, an author and commentator, agrees with Hodges that those who believe Miliband’s repudiation of New Labour didn’t go far enough are deluding themselves.

Given that the last time Labour won an election without Tony Blair was 1974, it’s hard to believe people still think the answer is to move left. But people still do.

The candidate who could benefit the most from this sentiment is Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary. The Guardian reports that he is the favorite to replace Miliband.

A bleeding-heart socialist, Burnham has resisted every liberalization in the National Health Service, insisting that the use of private contractors puts “people before profit” — even though they often do a better job that NHS-managed hospitals. Burnham sees a contest between “NHS values” and business values in health care; between “collaboration” and “competition”; between “patient care” and profits. Seeing those things are mutually exclusive is a mistake and it does not suggest Burnham would be much more business-friendly than Ed Miliband was.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and wife of Ed Balls — who lost his seat on Thursday — is bookies’ favorite to replace Miliband. The Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting tabloid, is sympathetic, suggesting she could win more Scottish and women voters.

If Labour are ever to win again, they need to appeal to middle-of-the-road and socially conservative voters. They need to show economic competence and a clear vision that isn’t bedeviled by infighting, knifings and gaffes.

“Yvette can manage all of that,” the Mirror believes. It is unclear, though, if her policy would really be more centrist than Miliband’s.

Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, is more clearly New Labour. According to the Financial Times, he has “gradually moved to a more Blairite position since entering Parliament in 2010” and “built up a huge base in London where Labour has more members than any other region.”

The Guardian also sees Umunna as a future leader of the party. “But not necessarily the next leader.”

He is 36 years old; by the next election, he will be 41; significantly younger than any of the main players this time round. Yvette Cooper said the last leadership contest did not come at a good time for her. And Umunna may decide this one comes to early for him.

The Financial Times describes Dan Jarvis, the shadow justice minister, as “the dark horse in the race” but he would be strong contender. A former Parachute Regiment officer who was deployed to Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been vice-chair of the Blairite think tank Progress and was tipped by The Spectator, a right-wing weekly, in 2012 as a potential party leader. If Labour decides it needs to win back voters in the middle, it could do worse than select Jarvis.