10 Aug 2010

Labour leadership ‘soap opera’ as ballot opens

Ed Balls accuses supporters of the Miliband brothers of turning the Labour leadership contest into a two-horse race, focusing on the “soap opera” of sibling rivalry. Krishnan Guru-Murthy reports.


Contenders for the leadership kicked off their long campaigns in May, but now they have less than a month before the ballot box closes and the new leader is announced on 25 September – the day before the Labour Party Conference begins.

Statistics show that the Miliband brothers each have more than 30 per cent support, with David in the lead, according to Left Foot Forward. The three other candidates, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, are running very close to each other, with each garnering around 10 per cent.

David Miliband: frontrunner and underdog

Since 2007 David Miliband was regarded as the man most likely to challenge Gordon Brown, or to take over when he finally went.

The former foreigh secretary is widely regarded, even by those who don’t support him, as a clever man who thinks strategically and has an intellectual pragmatism.

Despite various attempts to distance himself from his past as Tony Blair’s big thinker David Miliband is still regarded as essentially a Blairite.

Vital statistics: David Miliband
Age: 45
Constituency: South Shields (11,109 majority)
First elected: June 2001
Current role: Shadow Foreign Secretary
Nominations: 81 MPs, 165 constituency Labour parties, six MEPs, two trade unions, one socialist society
Donations: £138,835.12 in July 2010 and £185,265.21 in June 2010 declared to the Electoral Commission
Who Knows Who: David Miliband's connections.

While all the candidates try to shed those definitions it still means David Miliband is one least likely to tell the unions and the left of the Labour Party what they want to hear.

Yet he could also be the candidate most focussed on those voters who were attracted by New Labour, but have now deserted the party for David Cameron’s Conservatives.

However this takes some reading between the lines as the fact he is having to appeal to Labour Party members means certain issues, such as low pay and equality are taking a much bigger role in this leadership election.

It is ground the elder Miliband is comfortable on, with his past role in Labour’s Social Justice Commission in the early 90’s, but many also want to know if he has changed his view of Britain’s role in the world since serving as Foreign Secretary.

So why is he an underdog too? The decision by younger brother Ed to stand against him has divided the media, the Labour luvvies and ordinary members.

Lots of them have backed the younger brother seduced by the idea that he is more media friendly and displaying a ruthlessness towards his brother that one might want in a leader. He is also closer to the unions and the big ones are backing him.

Ed Miliband: the other brother

Ed Miliband seems, according to the polls, fundraising and shadow cabinet support, to be a close second to his brother David in the leadership race. He has the union bosses, and some high profile supporters.

But the fact the contest is settled by the Alternative Vote means his supporters believe he will be carried to victory by counting people’s second preferences.

The impression developing about him is that Ed is a bit to the left of his brother David and a little warmer on TV.

But critics say he thinks less clearly and will not take on the left of the party in order to win those vital middle class voters in England that Labour has lost.

So, how would Labour differ with him at the helm? “I think we did great things in government but I think people lost the sense of who we were and what we believe. We became managerial and technocratic,” he says.

Vital statistics: Ed Miliband 
Age: 40
Constituency: Doncaster North (10,909 majority)
First elected: 2005
Current role: Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Nominations: 63 MPs, 6 trade unions, 151 constituency Labour parties, 3 socialist societies, 6 MEPs
Donations: £46,450 in July, £15,000 in June (declared to the Electoral Commission)
Who Knows Who: Ed Miliband's connections.

“That’s why I’ve said that we should be very clear about our values and we should speak up for them. I believe in a more equal society and I think we should say that clearly.

“The gap between rich and poor isn’t just bad for people who are poor; it’s bad for all of us. Our societies which are healthier, happier more secure are those societies that are more equal.”

“I believe in a more equal society and I think we should say that clearly.” Ed Miliband

He goes on to say that it is important for Labour to “recapture the agenda around civil liberties” adding that although mistakes were made he still supports Labour initiatives such as CCTV.

“I’m not someone who believes that everything we did was right on that agenda,” he says.

“I think we need to be the party that shows that we understand that the state can be overbearing and that actually if you’re going to be extending state power you’ve always got to have an overwhelmingly good reason for doing it.”

Ed Balls: Joint favourite to come last in the contest

Ed Balls believes he is gaining ground and benefiting from the long leadership campaign.

The former education secretary is also arguing for the most controversial economic policy: to slow down the reduction of the deficit to a pace below the one Labour argued for at the last election.

Vital statistics: Ed Balls 
Age: 43
Constituency: Morley and Outwood
First elected: May 2005
Current role: Shadow education secretary
Nominations: 33 MPs, 17 constituency Labour parties, one trade union
Donations: £118,494 in June and July 2010 declared to the Electoral Commission.
Who Knows Who: Ed Balls was once a journalist for The Financial Times, see his connections.

But he is surprising many with both a determination to oppose the coalition and with an ability to articulate a vision and conviction.

Ed Balls is, however, suffering most from his closeness to Gordon Brown partly because Ed Miliband, who was almost as close, has carefully distanced himself as much as possible.

It has perhaps been one of the reasons so many centre-left figures in the party, and the big trade unions, have deserted Balls when they were once expected to back him.

“I don’t think people think of me other than as somebody who fights to win and sticks with it.” Ed Balls

He is also fighting a characterisation of himself in the media as a bruising bully. That has been fed, he says, mainly by the right-wing media and the Tories.

But there is no doubt the past bust-ups with Tony Blair’s team have caused long term damage to the Balls image.

For they are as responsible for the rumours as anyone. “I don’t think people think of me other than as somebody who fights to win and sticks with it,” says Balls.

“I started as the underdog. I started as somebody who if the poll had been very early on, in the first few weeks, I couldn’t have won.

“But it’s a liberation for me, this leadership election, to escape the shadows of the past and actually set out your own personal views about what needs to be done and the future.”

Andy Burnham: the ‘ordinary’ person’s candidate

Andy Burnham is getting a long way on being a nice guy. He admits himself that he is an outsider but says he is comfortable about being in third place behind David and Ed Miliband, not necessarily in that order.

The Burnham campaign is however, much smaller scale with much less money behind it and a smaller organisation.

However, Andy Burnham is pitching himself as the man who best understands ordinary people. He is making much of his working class roots in the North West, although he denies that that’s a dig at the Primrose Hill Milibands, or the public school educated Ed Balls.

Vital statistics: Andy Burnham
Age: 40
Constituency: Leigh (12,011 majority)
First elected: June 2001
Current role: Shadow Health Secretary
Nominations: 33 MPs, 44 constituency Labour parties, one MEPs, no trade unions, one socialist society
Donations: £22,400 in July 2010, none in June 2010 according to figures declared to the Electoral Commission
Who Knows Who: see Andy Burnham’s connections.

But in truth Andy Burnham isn’t that different. As an adult he studied at Cambridge and, after a very brief stint as a journalist, has spent his entire adult working life in Westminster politics.

So how different is he really, I wondered, and what is his pitch really about?

The Labour party is “for a fairer spread of health, wealth and life chances,” Burnham says.

“What brought me into politics was to challenge a world where the postcode of the bed you’re born in determines pretty much where you end up in life and I think sadly that’s still as true today.

“We’ve done good things as the Labour party to improve and give people more life chances, and for instance getting more young people to university is something that will in time make this a much fairer country and a less unequal country.

“But I’m very, very struck that it’s still much harder to get on in the world if you’re an ordinary kid without connections.

“I think it’s even harder today than it was when I graduated.”

So what is his vision for the Labour party, now they are in opposition? “Job number one is to set out a clear and principled alternative to the course upon which the coalition have placed us.

“Labour must, at the time of the spending review if not before, set out a moral alternative to cuts on the scale that we are about to see. I think we’re going to see such damage to public services that in some cases it could be irreparable.”

Burnham, who first started attending Labour meetings at the age of 14, says that it is important to engage with “ordinary people”.

“Cameron didn’t win his outright majority because people couldn’t identify with him. They couldn’t believe that he knew what their lives were like.

“It does matter, the extent to which people do have their feet on the ground.”

He points to his own background, starting off in journalism and working in publishing “admittedly only for three years, but nevertheless”.

“My parents didn’t go to university, and they weren’t party activists. So I didn’t come from a background where this life that I’m leading now was expected. My route in has been different, and obviously that gives you a different perspective on life.

Diane Abbott: “I’m the genuine move-on candidate”

In her own mind Diane Abbott has transformed from the media celebrity who was a popular thorn in the side of Tony Blair into a credible candidate to lead her party back to government, and she clearly believes she is much more than the token candidate of the left that many viewed her as at the start.

As for owing her place in the contest to David Miliband, who lent her some of his supporters in parliament to get enough nominations, you would not know it.

Diane Abbott: vital statistics
Age: 56
Constituency: Hackney North and Stoke Newington (14,461 majority)
First elected: June 1987
Current role:
Backbench MP
Nominations: 33 MPs, 20 constituency Labour parties, no MEPs, two trade unions, one socialist society
Donations: None declared to the Electoral Commission in June or July 2010
Who Knows Who: see Diane Abbott’s connections.

Those who hoped she would make the hustings a lot more exciting to watch might have been disappointed by how seriously she has taken them – her answers these days seem far more calibrated and thought through that they were when she was just a backbench MP throwing barbs at the government.

But Diane Abbott is clear that she has been right about all the big issues in the last fifteen years, and continues to be the person with the instinctive answers for the Labour Party.

“I am the best person to lead the party because we need to rebuild and revive the party,” she says. “We’ve lost so many members in the New Labour years and I am the person with the most knowledge of the party. I’ve been a city councillor, I’ve been a trade union official, I’ve sat on the NEC.

“We need a good communicator, and I thing I’m a proven communicator. And we need to move on from the Blair/Brown years as exemplified in the Mandelson diaries. I’m the genuine move-on candidate – the others are continuity candidates.”

“We’ve got to rebuild the party. But you’ve also got to take the fight to the Tories.” Diane Abbott

Her first priority, she says, is to rebuild the Labour party.

“My own local party lost a thousand members in the New Labour years,” she says. “We’ve got to rebuild the party. But you’ve also got to take the fight to the Tories and you’ve also got to show that we’re ready to take office again.

“The big thing we actually have to do is deal with the terrible disillusion. A lot of Labour voters voted Labour despite some of what had happened in New Labour years. In the end their loyalty to the party came first. That’s why we didn’t do as badly as some of the polls indicated.

“But you’ve got to deal with the disillusion and then do the practical things, rebuilding the party and turning it into a campaigning organisation.”