Sunday, 26 September 2010

It's Ed, by a whisker

Some initial thoughts on the result of the Labour leadership contest.

The vote was so close that it's difficult to read too much into it. A difference of just over 1% between Ed and Dave Miliband, after four rounds of voting, hardly marks a decisive option for one candidate or a clear rejection of the other.

On first preferences, David Miliband gained the support of 111 Labour MPs and MEPs, while Ed garnered 84. Among Labour Party members, David won 55,905 and Ed 37,980. This means that Ed Miliband now has to lead a parliamentary party, the majority of whom wanted his brother to win. And to win the support of a membership who would rather have had a different leader.

What swung it for Ed was the fact that, firstly, a clear majority of affiliated members - union members - preferred him to his brother. Secondly, he won a mathematical majority among the alternative choices of those who voted for other candidates. David led his brother in the first three rounds of voting - by a narrowing margin, admittedly. It was only when the alternative preferences of Ed Balls, the last candidate to drop out, were added in, that Ed Miliband managed to squeeze ahead by a whisker.

It may sound like sour grapes, but this does raise the question of whether the alternative voting system is either fair or effective. If the election had been run on a first-past-the-post system, then David might well won, since he gained the most first preference votes. Certainly, the experience of this election will give some of us pause for thought when it comes to voting on AV for national elections next May.

Inevitably, the question of the electoral college system, and particularly the union vote, has also come under scrutiny, and will continue to do so as activists and journalists pick over the result in the next few days. The debate began on Twitter soon after the result was announced, with some denouncing what they saw as a return of the block vote, others pointing out that union members voted as individuals not en bloc, and still others questioning why union members who were not full party members should have such influence over who leads the Party. There have already been calls for reform of the system, with Oliver Kamm tweeting to the effect that MPs should elect the leader, since it's they who have to work with him or her.

I'm an instinctive democrat, but you can take the diffusion of power too far. Leaders have to lead, and this can be difficult if they start with a perception that those they need to lead most directly - their fellow MPs, and then the mass membership who will work for their election to government - would rather be led by someone else. We've still got direct elections to the Shadow Cabinet to come, which seems even more of a nonsense, potentially saddling the new leader with people with whom he disagrees politically, or can't get on with temperamentally.

Insofar as you can draw any political conclusions from the leadership election, it would appear that a small majority of the Party was motivated by a desire to break with the Blair years and opted instead for someone who presented himself as a 'change' from New Labour. Ed Miliband certainly acknowledged the achievements of New Labour during his campaign, but attempted (not always convincingly) to distance himself from its less popular actions, such as the war in Iraq. At the same time, he tacked to the left and appealed to Old Labour tribalism so as to distinguish himself from his brother. While David argued that Labour should renew itself by listening to what the country at large was saying, Ed gave the impression that he believed the way forward was for the Party to consult its own members and return to its core values and traditions.

Ed's approach echoed that of his erstwhile mentor, Gordon Brown, when he was itching to take over the reins from Tony Blair a few years ago. And in some quarters, Miliband's victory will be seen as the revenge of the Brownites. The worry is that, in seeking to distance itself from the legacy of Blair, the Party has chosen another Gordon Brown, and is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past three years. To be sure, Ed doesn't seem to share Gordon's personal shortcomings, but he appears to go along with Brown's belief that the path to renewal - and electoral victory - lies in ditching much of the New Labour baggage and carving out a more conventional left-of-centre political and economic path. In the last chapter of A Journey, which I'm reading at the moment, Tony Blair argues forcefully that this, combined with his lack of a sure political instinct, was Brown's big mistake during his short tenure as prime minister.

It's all left me wondering if Labour is now in a similar position to the Tories in the mid-1990s. Like the Conservatives then, today's Labour Party seems to be struggling to find its direction after a long period in power under a hugely successful, but controversial and contentious, leader. On this reading, Gordon Brown was to Labour what John Major was to the Conservatives: a rather ineffectual successor to an exceptional prime minister. It took the Tories four further changes of leader to find someone who could renew the party and move it on from Thatcherism. Let's hope that Labour gets over its version of Blair Derangement Syndrome rather sooner.

Finally, I feel bitterly disappointed for David Miliband, who threw himself heart and soul into the leadership contest and, in my view, was far and away the best candidate. He may go down in history as the best leader Labour never had. Ask yourself: which of the candidates was best equipped to take the fight to the Tories from day one, and which of them were Cameron and Clegg most afraid of facing at PMQs when Parliament returns. Now, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Coalition will be sharpening their sneers and jibes about Labour being controlled by the unions, just like the bad old days.

What did for David, in the end, was timing. He was ready to lead by the time Tony Blair left office, and in my view would have been a brilliant and natural successor. But there was the whole ugly business of 'Gordon's turn,' together with a gathering disillusionment, in the party if not in the country, with Blair and those associated with him. There's a passage in the Blair book in which David asks Tony whether he should run against Gordon, and you can see why he baulked at splitting the party and alienating the powerful cabal of Brownites. Then there was the opportunity to spark a leadership election when Brown's premiership hit rough waters, and again, the decision must have been agonising. It was as though the Party had to see the whole destructive Brown psychodrama through to its bitter end, before it was ready to make a fresh start with a new leader. Then, when the opportunity finally and inevitably came, David will have been seen by some as yesterday's man, whereas his brother (who in reality had been just as implicated in New Labour, and part of the failed Brown experiment, to boot) was able to come across as new, fresh and untainted by all these past machinations.

I may be wrong - I hope I am - but, despite the elation of the moment yesterday, it looks as though Labour still has a long and difficult path back to power.

Don't miss my fellow Blair-fan Julie's take on the election result here.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Thanks for the mention, Martin. Great post. Have linked back to it at my blog: