Lord Mandelson, who used to be known as the Prince of Darkness, is now seeking to be the Giver of Light. In a series of comments on the coming election for a new leader of the British Labour Party, Mandelson has cautioned the party not to become over enthralled with its history as a socialist party. Noting the mood and character of British politics has changed, he calls for a centre right candidate to win the race and warns of the dangers of moving to the left.
Widely interpreted as support for David Miliband and a caution against his brother Ed Miliband, the front runners in the race to succeed Gordon Brown, it is also a hard knock against the only other serious candidate, Ed Balls, who has moved to the left as the campaign has progressed. Mandelson is positioning himself as the sage of “new” Labour following the publication of his book The Third Man which describes his pivotal role as the “piggy in the middle” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He reminds the candidates that Britain needs careful and conservative management of its economy, a cautious social policy and real reform of health care. He dismisses two of the candidates – Andy Burnham and Dianne Abbot – as left and gone.
Tony Blair, Mandelson’s former colleague and occasional tormentor – he sacked Mandelson from the British cabinet twice - has clearly decided to support David Miliband. In several reported remarks, he has echoed Lord Mandelson concerns and has also spoken about intelligence, eloquence and courage – all things he attributed to David Miliband and not Ed Miliband.
Early polls showed Ed Balls winning, as the two Miliband brothers effectively split the vote, but betting at Paddy-Power – the world’s leading novelty online betting company - suggests otherwise. The money is going to the Miliband brothers, with David being favourite at 1:3 and Ed a close second at 2:1. Ed Balls is running a distant third at 50:1 and Diane Abbot is still wandering around the paddock at 125:1.
There is just under a month to go and, as Harold Wilson the former British Prime Minister said, “a week is a long time in politics”. Ed Balls is complaining that watching the Miliband Brothers campaign against each other is like watching Big Brother, while Diane Abbot is simply complaining. Balls laid out a social housing and social welfare program which he knows Britain cannot afford. Diane Abbot has demanded a restoration of welfare services which even her own Labour Government scrapped due to ineffectiveness and cost.
The serious focus is now on David Miliband. It should be. Labour just lost the last election and still have a large number of seats in the House of Commons – 258 seats to the Conservatives 301. The Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, though starting out strongly, has a long road ahead of difficult decisions and potentially divisive issues. The next leader of the Labour Party could be positioned to win a slight majority if a general election is called over a fragmented coalition in the next three years. While some think that the coalition will last for some time, others take the view that, in the end, British politics are tribal: people like clarity and the coalition will become increasingly “fuzzy” as the days go by.
David Miliband, if elected leader, could find himself fighting an election sooner rather than later. The question is: does he have what it takes to win? He is clearly intellectually able to develop policy and strategy appropriate for the times. He is articulate, if over precise. But he is what the British think of as “a bit of an egg-head” – a policy wonk and a little effete. He comes across more like a University Professor than a passionate, committed and yet serious leader of a party of the people. In contrast, his brother, Ed Miliband, has a little more fire and brimstone, but seems to have less depth. Most critical of all is the question in the mind of the electoral college which will elect the new leader – does David Miliband have courage.
When a number of former cabinet members rebelled against Gordon Brown early in 2010, they did so on the basis of promised support from key members of Brown’s cabinet. One of these was David Miliband, also the last cabinet member to offer support to Brown during this crisis – albeit tepid support with a hint of malice. Earlier in his time as Foreign Secretary, he failed to respond to the plea from a close colleague and political ally, James Purnell, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to join him in resigning from government to force Gordon Brown out of the position of Prime Minister on the grounds that he was a failure as a leader and could not win a general election. Purnell has since suggested that Miliband dithered, first agreeing and then reneging, suggesting a lack of decisiveness when the right thing to do conflicts with the strong ambitions and need for recognition which many see David Miliband as having.
We will know at the end of September when the election results are announced at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. All of a sudden, the race is beginning to stir.