New UK Labour leader must appeal beyond unions

Britain’s opposition Labour Party chose former energy secretary Ed Miliband as its new leader on Saturday after he defeated his brother David in a cliffhanger vote, writes Keith Weir.

Rapid return?
Ed Miliband’s task is to make sure Labour is positioned for a rapid return to power after they lost a general election in May, ending 13 years in office. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is an uneasy alliance of right and centre-left and plans to push through huge spending cuts next month will place a strain on the partnership, despite its avowed intent to rule for the next five years.

‘Red Ed’
Britain’s right-wing press have attempted to portray Miliband as “Red Ed”. The label is an exaggeration but he has been keen to appeal to the party’s core vote, whereas his brother David planned to chart a more centrist course pioneered by former prime minister Tony Blair.

Union backing was vital in securing Ed’s narrow victory over David, who scored higher with parliamentarians and party members. The Conservatives are already arguing that the new leader will take the party back to an age when it was in thrall to the unions. Ed Miliband must prove he is more than just a union placeman.

Deficit cutting
How to deal with a record peacetime budget deficit of 11% of national output is the central issue in British politics. The coalition plans to virtually eliminate it over the course of the Parliament, but Labour argues that is going too fast and risks tipping Britain back into recession.

Ed Miliband must map out a credible deficit reduction strategy of his own. His indication so far is that he backs existing party plans to halve the deficit over four years, but sees a greater role for taxation rather than heavy reliance on spending cuts.

He is likely to broach this in his first speech to the party as leader on Tuesday and his choice of shadow chancellor in the coming weeks will be closely watched. Ed Balls, who finished third in the leadership race and is a candidate for the post, has argued that the economy is still in need of stimulus at this stage.

Fraternal tensions
Despite more than a decade in power since 1997, the Labour party was split between supporters of Tony Blair and his successor as leader Gordon Brown. “Blairite” or “Brownite” became short-hand to describe the loyalties and leanings of MPs. Ed Miliband has snatched the Labour crown from his brother’s head and must ensure that David remains in his team and supports him loyally, rather than setting off another civil war.

Wooing the Lib Dem voters
During the campaign, Ed Miliband, who entered Parliament only in 2005, made a direct appeal to Liberal Democrat voters to take another look at Labour. The Lib Dems picked up the support of a large number of Labour supporters angry with Blair for taking the country into war with Iraq in 2003. Unease at seeing their party sharing power with the Conservatives might help Labour to win back some of these Lib Dem voters.

Recent opinion polls have shown Labour level with the Conservatives as the largest party, while support for the Lib Dems has slipped into the mid-to-low teens, down by a third since the election. – Reuters

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Keith Weir
Keith Weir works from London. Editor, Reuters. Mainly business news these days. Former correspondent in Rome, Amsterdam, Dublin and London. Keith Weir has over 696 followers on Twitter.

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