The August Riots

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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Labour Leadership Contest - Is it really any more than just "the battle of the brothers?"

Although most eyes will still be fixed on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in the background a power struggle is taking place that may well be key in shaping Britain's future. Despite what the Conservative Party propagandists have claimed, the public didn't overwhelmingly vote to reject the Labour Party after the cliched '13 wasted years', nor did they overwhelmingly choose the Tories. Should David Cameron's party continue with its programme of spending cuts and tax increases, which have been described as 'unavoidable' and indeed may well be so, by 2015 there is a distinct possibility that unless the British economy drastically picks up, Labour may well be poised to sweep back into power. Therefore the current battle for the leadership of the Labour Party is, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely crucial. The reason for this is that Labour will be the only party with a realistic chance of being elected in 2015 not to have been associated with the coalition government, and if the policies currently being enacted by said government fail to produce the desired improvement, Labour will be the only 'untainted' major party. Labour has come a long way since 1992, when it was still to all intents and purposes 'socialist', to the essentially middle-of-the-spectrum, yet with a social conscience party it could be rather kindly described as now.

Much of this change can be attributed to one Tony Blair, a slightly marmite figure in British politics, but somebody who undeniably utilised the media, 'spin' and the support of big business to excellent effect. He saw the way in which politics was going, and continuing from the stellar work began by the late and slightly forgotten about John Smith, turned the Labour Party into an electable political force once again. During his ten years as Prime Minister, Blair made several notable achievements, including the introduction of the minimum wage, and the seminal Good Friday Agreement. His replacement, Gordon Brown, found top-level politics and the unflinching glare of the media spotlight slightly more difficult to deal with than his predecessor. Brown was certainly a more traditional Labour leader, from a rather more modest background than most of his fellow politicians, and in many ways he was a breath of fresh air following the PR-orientated politics of Tony Blair. With five candidates set to do battle to succeed him, it remains to be seen whether Labour will look for a Brownite, or a Blairite as the party aims to transform itself into a credible electoral force once again, ready to capitalise on any mistakes by, dips in popularity of, or splits within the coalition government.

Five hopefuls have recieved the requisite number of nominations to stand as leadership candidates, and the race to the finish looks set to take off over the next few weeks and months. All of the candidates offer something different, all of the candidates have their own vision for the future direction of the British Labour Party, and all of the candidates will be hoping their ideas and principles will be shared by Labour supporters, MPs and shadow cabinet members alike. As with all contests of this variety, the battle between the frontrunners is almost always the most intriguing. However the battle between David and Ed Miliband is not merely a struggle for power between two leadership favourites and close colleagues, but two brothers. Whilst David has insisted that "brotherly love will survive" despite the two going head-to-head for victory, and Ed has affirmed that he thought long and hard about standing against his older brother, one can't help but think that a family rift can't be too far around the corner. Commentators have warned of the potential for a "Cain and Abel" struggle between the two, who each represent one of the two key factions in this leadership race, with Ed the 'Brownite', believing more than his brother in honest, straight-up, no-frills politics, and David the 'Blairite', not averse to manipulating PR or using 'spin', and able to enunciate his ideas in a very intellectual and eloquent manner.

With a total of 74 nominations according to the most recently published figures, David Miliband is the favourite to become the next Labour leader. A politician in the Blair, and dare I say it Cameron mould, David was appointed Foreign Secretary in 2007 at just 41 years old, making him the youngest MP in 30 years to hold the position. Prior to this he established a good reputation for himself as Environment Secretary, and was encouraged by his supporters in the Labour Party to mount a coup against the beleaguered Gordon Brown in 2008, but perhaps wisely decided against doing so. David has claimed that he wants Labour to "rebuild itself as a great reforming champion of social and economic change", in what he sees as a "new era" in British politics. These sort of words may be rather familiar to those who in 1997 voted overwhelmingly to reject the divided and unelectable Conservatives in favour of New Labour, and very much indicate David's Blairite leanings. However is he simply another 'spin politician' who favours style over substance? I have certainly identified David in the past as being just this, and I'm sure many others have drawn similar conclusions. Despite this it must be noted that he does have the backing of several influential figures in the Labour Party, including former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. David's call for Labour to be the "great unifying force on all shades of centre left opinion in this country" certainly sounds like the right thing to be saying, and out of all the potential candidates he seems the most capable of facing up to David Cameron in a contest of style and presentation. Whether or not he has the right policies to go with the rhetoric, and whether he will be able to unite the disparate elements of the Labour Party behind him in very much another Blairite administration remains to be seen.

Brother Ed is lagging behind slightly, with 57 nominations, but the fact that he is thought to have the backing of many unions, and be highly regarded amongst grass-roots Labour supporters and activists may give him a different sort of leadership credibility. Although David arguably has more friends in high places, undeniably an important factor, the fact that Ed is regarded as a 'Brownite' may play in his favour. It really depends what sort of leader the party is looking for, and whether or not they wish for a neo-New Labour, or a continuation of the Labour Party Gordon Brown fashioned during his three years as leader. Ed has been regarded as being very much part of Brown's inner circle of special advisers, and this definitely has the potential to either play his in favour or work against him. In his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed established a reputation for himself as an up-and-coming figure within the Labour Party, but has he risen enough to be seen as a credible candidate? At 40 years old he is the youngest hopefuls for the leadership, and with only five years experience as an MP he may well be a 'next time around' candidate, who perhaps requires a number of years experience in one of the four Great Offices of State before he can be considered a real contender.

The next hopeful is Ed Balls, who has emerged in recent weeks as somewhat of an unlikely frontrunner, at least according to various news outlets and interested spectators. He has received only the 33 nominations required to stand as a candidate, and he looks certain to recieve rapturous backing from the tabloid press due to his, shall we say, unfortunate surname. Yet away from such excellent headlines as 'another balls up' and 'what a load of balls', the second Ed running in the race to succeed Gordon Brown was also one of his closest advisers, if not the closest. His past experience includes 10 years as Brown's Chief Economics Adviser at the Treasury, before his appointment as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in 2007. A tough and combative character, he is seemingly a 'marmite' figure for many in the Labour Party, which could prove to be a crucial factor in what is, at its basest level, a popularity contest. His closeness to Brown means he may suffer from being labelled as the 'continuity candidate', who will simply repeat the mistakes and suffer from the same percieved shortcomings of the recent Labour leader. At 43 he is, like both Milibands, a young candidate with plenty of time to learn and develop, but the question is, will he be able to shake off his 'loyal Brownite' image, and would he even wish to?

Fourth on the list is Andy Burnham, the fresh-faced youthful Shadow Secretary for Health, who recieved the 33 votes required for nomination only on the final day of voting. Having watched Andy struggle on Question Time in the past, he may perhaps require a touch more media training to live up to the impressive standards set by Tony Blair in the past, and David Cameron currently. A keen football fan and musician, he certainly appears to be one of the more 'human', if I can use that word in a non-derogatory sense, figures in the Shadow Cabinet. Such a quality could well play in his favour over the coming weeks, but he is still very much an outside bet. Andy's position as a relative unknown to many Britons may also hurt his chances, but likely on slightly, as this is a contest within the Labour Party itself, where he has been on the scene since the mid-1990s. His 'youthful' appearance shouldn't harm his chances either, after all Nick Clegg probably benefited in his campaign to become the next Prime Minister from his, 'middle-ground and pleasantly attractive" appearance alongside an older Gordon Brown. However his lack of experience will almost certainly stand against him, as it does for many people in all areasa of life. Like Ed Miliband he could do with a few more years at the centre of the Labour Party, making the crucial friends and alliances required to enter high political office, but who knows what will happen. If Labour supporters genuinely do want a change in direction, even without analysing policy Andy Burnham would arguably be a candidate capable of providing this.

The final candidate is the only woman to be contesting the Labour leadership, and the oldest contender of the final five. Diane Abbott, who has recieved the support of acting Labour leader Harriet Harman as the only female candidate in what is seen as a male dominated battle, like Andy Burnham only recieved the 33 required nominations on the final day. Despite the unexpectedness of her bid to become the first female leader of the Labour Party, Diane insists that it is "genuine" and believes her outspoken, fiesty personality will give her the edge amongst her perhaps more 'acceptable', 'usual' and maybe even 'boring' opponents. The fact that she is well-known both within the party and amongst the general public gives her bid a certain authenticity, but Diane remains a relative outsider in this contest. Her position on BBC's This Week and reputation as not being averse to going against the party leadership will certainly win her favour amongst the more radical grass-roots supporters, and those who favour strong women and outspoken characters. Yet perhaps to become party leader, a position which can only be described as mainstream, she would be the wrong person to bring together the various disparate elements that make up Labour, and represent the views of all those involved in the party. At 57 years of age and having been an MP for 23 years, Diane has the experience required. Yet will experience be enough in this contest? Diane claims she decided to stand because of how little there was to choose between the other contenders, but will her position as a bit of a maverick, a radical and a past critic stand against her in the coming weeks and months? It is hard to say, but whoever gets the job will have the task of turning Labour from electoral disappointments into favourites by 2015.

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