After a race that felt like it would go on forever Ed Milliband has beaten his brother David to take the role of leading the Labour Party.
The result, announced on the eve of the party’s annual conference in Manchester yesterday, saw Ed Milliband win with 50.65% of the votes cast by MP’s, MEP’s, party members and members of affiliated organisations, David Milliband polled 49.35% with Ed Balls coming third.
David Milliband attracted the largest number of votes from MP’s, MEP’s and party members, but backing from the big unions swung things in favour of his brother by a small majority, prompting some sections of the UK press to dub him ‘Red Ed’ and accuse him of being in the pocket of his union backers. A charge the new leader refutes claiming to be very much his ‘own man’ and pledging to unify the party in the name of a ‘new generation’ that had brought to an end the New Labour project.
Just now everything in the tight bubble of the party conference will be sweetness and light, the defeated challengers have rallied behind him and it is safe to predict that his first speech as leader will be hailed as a triumph. The real hard work will begin when parliament sits again in October and the comprehensive spending review stops being an alarming rumour and becomes a painful reality.
It is then and only then that Ed Milliband will discover the problems and opportunities that face him in his new role.
The problems are clear; the small majority with which he won the leadership means that his position will be vulnerable for the foreseeable future. He might not face a challenge from his brother, the bonds of filial love are stronger than the demands of political ambition, but there is no guarantee that his colleagues will have such strong scruples. There is also the small matter of finding a distinctive identity for a party that has spent too long on the sterile centre ground. Neither problem will be overcome quickly or easily.
If the problems that face Ed Milliband seem to loom large, so do the opportunities. Opposition leaders have the opportunity to travel the country meeting party members and ordinary voter, something that the pressures of business and security concerns prevent members of the government from doing easily. He must take full advantage of this, even if it means initially taking a considerable amount of flack from a core vote that feels it has been taken for granted.
On the subject of the budget cuts it is not enough to simply oppose the government; Labour must go beyond protest politics to provide a credible alternative. In doing so he must not be distracted by the siren voices within his party calling for consolidation on the centre ground or the ‘Red Ed’ jibes thrown about by the media. Many of the ideas once attributed to the ‘loony left’, concern for the environment or fair treatment for minority groups for example, have been accepted by the political mainstream; if a strong enough case is made for an economic system that strikes a fairer balance between growth and equality it too could be accepted by the electorate.
Whatever happened once the euphoria of the conference season has dissipated Ed Milliband will need a thick skin and the stomach for a fight that will be long and in all likelihood dirty. The same goes for the ‘new generation’ of Labour politicians for whom he claims to be the standard bearer.