Three key issues facing the new Labour leader, Mr Miliband

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2010

In an hour’s time we shall know who is the new leader of the Labour party. Though the bookies now make Ed Miliband favourite, my hunch is that older brother David will get the nod, just. We shall soon see. The best guide I’ve read on what to look out for as the votes are announced is over at Next Left; Adam Boulton’s blog also has a good guide to the nuts and bolts of what happens when.

But whichever of the Milibands wins through, here are three issues they will need urgently to address heading into the party’s Manchester conference…

1. How will Labour credibly oppose the Coalition cuts?

To date, Labour has skirted the issue, but the new leader will not be afforded that luxury any longer. Labour’s refusal to hold a comprehensive spending review before the election to avoid handing any hostages to fortune to the Lib Dems or Conservatives sort of worked as a tactic (Labour can pick and choose which cuts to oppose without the inconvenience of an audit trail showing what they’d have done in government) — but it’s not a strategy.

The timing of the economic and parliamentary cycles doesn’t help Labour. If the British economy avoids a double-dip recession, it is likely the economic outlook in four years time will be cheerier than today. The Coalition partners will be able to argue they took tough, decisive action: it hurt, but it worked. Labour will be left, more weakly, arguing they’d have done it just as well but with less pain, an unproveable claim that’s likely to work better with sympathisers than floating voters.

2. How can Labour win back the south?

There’s a fascinatng article by Lord (Giles) Radice at Policy Network pointing out Labour’s big issue with voters in the south:

In the south and the midlands, where general elections are determined, Labour holds just 49 out of 302 seats, and the swing against it was over 9% in many seats. … The party already has a dominant position in northern and Celtic Britain. Even if it does better at the next election, there are not enough seats in Wales, Scotland and Northern England for Labour to secure a convincing parliamentary majority. The key to recovery lies in the marginal constituencies of the south and the midlands.

Worryingly for Labour, voters in the areas it needs to win back are most likely to mis-trust the party. Labour risks mirroring the Tories problems from 1997 to 2005: retaining solid popularity among its core vote, but failing utterly to reach out beyond. The temptation for the new Labour leader will be to stick within the party’s comfort zone and assume the electoral pendulum will do the rest. That’s a highly risky strategy.

3. How will Labour restrain its anger and win back moderates?

The backlash aganst the Lib Dems among Labour party members is real; so therefore is the inclination of its leadership to reflect and project that anger. Ed Miliband has already done so, somewhat rashly pledging he would demand Nick Clegg’s resignation before contemplating a future Lib/Lab coalition. It’s an announcement that probably felt good, and doubtless won a round of applause within Labour ranks. But this kind of angry message is exactly what the new Labour leader will need to repudiate in order to reach out to moderates.

There is, I’m sure, much mileage to be gained by opposing the Coalition, and in particular by love-bombing current and former Lib Dem voters. That won’t be achieved, through, synthetic anger. Many voters are worried by the Coalition’s austerity measures; many Lib Dems, especially those who work in the public sector, worry the medicine is too harsh. But there is broad sympathy for the Coalition, and understanding that tough decisions would be implemented no matter who was in power. There is a tricky, balanced, nuanced tone of reason to be struck, and it’s going to be damned difficult for whichever Miliband wins today.

What do Voice reades think?