The Labour leadership contest has a long way left to run but two candidates in particular showed the enthusiasm and dynamism required to lead the Opposition this week, in the wake of the coalition’s “austerity” budget.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have responded to the Emergency Budget delivered by George Osborne with just the right mix of indignation, outrage and vision for Labour voters and indeed the public in general. Balls claimed that he had urged Gordon Brown to rule out a VAT rise in the election campaign, pointed to David Cameron’s own comments that it was a regressive tax striking the poor hardest and insisted that if he was calling the shots he would slash the deficit with more taxes on the wealthy. The younger Miliband also, with more reluctance, said he would not have sanctioned a VAT rise and launched an ambitious, progressive call for a graduate tax to replace tuition fees. He was united with Balls in condemning the coalition cuts as ideological, reaching far beyond the measures recommended by financial bodies and Labour’s own pledge to halve the deficit in four years. Both men were also silent on how Labour would have achieved such a reduction but the benefits of opposition allow for constant criticism without a great deal of scrutiny, and one landmark policy announcement each from both men was surely enough for one week.
By contrast the long term frontrunner to succeed Gordon Brown, David Miliband, has struggled with the transition from minister to shadow cabinet, from government to party. His response to a Budget hailed as the worst in generations has been far less visible than his younger sibling’s in the press. In an article in the Guardian David said the cuts would lead to a lost generation of young people, only to see his brother Ed’s policy announcement of a graduate tax snatch this platform from him. In TV appearances since announcing his candidacy the former Foreign Secretary has been hampered by his close connections to both the Brown and Blair administrations, spending his time defending New Labour’s record rather than announcing his own plans for the future. This is odd given that his brother was responsible for penning New Labour manifestos and was himself a cabinet minister under Brown, but nevertheless something David has been unable to shake off. In the Commons he has slipped up when debating with Foreign Secretary William Hague, referring to his Conservative opponent as the Shadow minister still. All in all, especially given his past reluctance to challenge for the leadership, David Miliband appears uncomfortable running for leader and only willing to do so as a vehicle to returning to power. His proposed initiatives so far as a leadership candidate are limited to fluffy talk about community action and lack the potency of the two Ed’s efforts, who have embraced the opportunities of opposition.
And yet the elder Miliband’s weaknesses are also a source of strength. David is the safe bet for Labour party members, the continuity candidate who will not abandon the centrist appeal of New Labour but will also provide a suitably fresh face for the electorate. There are concerns about his lack of people skills, the common touch, the political “X-Factor” but these are balanced by an impressive intellect and competent government experience. His rivals for the Labour leadership may be making short term waves, but these are media attacks primarily aimed at the Liberal Democrats that many within the Labour party will know Conservative advisers are happy about. Ed Miliband’s policy move on tuition fees for example, whilst positive and progressive in a sense is also an opportunistic swipe at the Lib Dems whilst they are down, all because they “betrayed” progressive politics with the coalition. I have warned previously on this blog that Labour leadership candidates will be tempted to score cheap points and target the Lib Dem vote and that a more sensible approach, one that promotes fairness in British politics as well as the long term interests of the Labour party, would be to avoid a realignment of the political system that leaves Labour isolated.
Sadly this is the trend of the campaign so far and David Cameron will be gleefully eyeing a second term without Lib Dem restraint if a Labour party emerges that continues to drive Nick Clegg and others into Conservative arms. Ed Miliband is not wrong to seek a replacement to tuition fees and in many ways it is good that he has done so as the Lib Dems withdraw their support for such a policy. However he has made the Lib Dems the enemy unnecessarily and I can only hope that his brother starts proposing popular, progressive policy free of emotional attacks on the Lib Dems . David must up his game to set out his own vision with passion, not just for his party but for potential voters. If he does not do so he may just watch his brother preside over a realignment that sees his party significantly weakened and content with enthusiastic opposition, isolated on the Left, a long way from the ministerial cars he grew so used to.