Labour Elects New Leader

The British socialists opt for a more obviously leftish course with the election of Ed Miliband as party leader.

The British Labour Party elects a new leader today. Former foreign minister David Miliband is the popular candidate but close second in the polls is his brother Ed Miliband who served as energy secretary for two years under Gordon Brown. In spite of their family relation, the two represent very different futures for Labour.

David Miliband is a proclaimed admirer of the Third Way policies of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He believes that after the last election, Labour has to “rebuild itself as a great reforming champion of social and economic change.” The party cannot survive when it moves to the left and withdraws into a “comfort zone” of union and public-sector workers’ support, according to Miliband.

Blair managed to transform Labour into a middle-class platform in the 1990s. His successor, Gordon Brown, was more of an old school socialist, playing class politics ahead of this year’s election. It didn’t do the party much good. Labour won less than a third of the vote in May.

Ed Miliband, who contributed to Labour’s most recent election manifesto, has positioned himself firmly to the left of his older brother. It has brought him the support of some of Britain’s largest of trade unions as well as their leaders who enjoy significant influence within the party. One union has even threatened to withdraw funding from the Labour Party unless Ed wins the leadership contest.

Pressured by his brother’s challenge, David has struck a more populist tone in recent weeks and months, favoring a “mansion tax” on high value properties and the creation of an investment bank built on the proceeds of selling off financial institutions that were nationalized as a result of the crisis. But he also urges welfare reform — something currently undertaken by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, though presumably not in the way Labour would like to see.

From upping taxes for the rich and on bankers’ bonuses to raising the minimum wage, “Red Ed” as he’s been dubbed by some critics, is telling core party members what they like to hear. He interprets Brown’s defeat four months ago as the end of “New Labour” and the recession, according to The Economist, as inaugurating “a new era in state activism.” The newspaper disagrees and has endorsed his brother who “has a more mature approach to the central, most pressing issue of British politics — the deficit, and the spending cuts that he acknowledges it necessitates.”

David Miliband seems best to appreciate that economic growth can come only from a nurtured private sector, rejecting the “default statism” of some in the Labour Party.

“A lurch to the left,” The Economist fears, would leave centrist voters “with nowhere to go other than the Conservative-Liberal coalition. Britain needs a credible opposition — and David Miliband is the most plausible person to deliver it.”

Update: Labour begged to differ. In an extremely close election Saturday afternoon, the party chose Ed to lead it in the years of opposition ahead.

While David Miliband led in the first rounds of voting, with especially strong support among sitting parliamentarians and party members, Ed’s strength with unions and affiliates members ultimately secured him a narrow win over his brother.

In his acceptance speech, Ed said that he understood the need for change. “This country is too unequal.” The gap between rich and poor, he believes, “harms us all and it is something government must tackle.”

“Today’s election turns the page,” according to Miliband, “because a new generation has stepped forward to serve our party and, in time, I hope, to serve our country.”