Springtime for liberal democracy and winter for Labour… as the direction of the official opposition is determined by Trade Union votes. In substance the MPs (53%) and Members (54%) showed a strong preference for David Miliband, but were out voted by Ed Miliband landslide (60%) in the Union section, each section accounting for a third of the final result.
Those most closely involved in fighting and winning elections for Labour have been squished by those most closely involved in making them unelectable. Under Gordon Brown, Unions bought the party machine covering over 70% of their income. After Brown they’ve captured the Leader’s office, potentially reversing all the gains made by Tony Blair in modernising his party. Labour’s narrative is now extremely vulnerable to the strikes promised in response to public sector cuts. The new Leader looks compromised before he’s even started. Worse Labour have just voted for the candidate most closely associated with support for the calamitous economic record of the previous Leader.
The result could not have been much closer (1.3%), in some respects mimicking the Liberal Democrat Huhne / Clegg race in 2007. The main difference though is the populist candidate tacking to the left beat the pragmatic candidate tacking to the centre.
This result will change both the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour. Suddenly New Labour are out, and looking at a very long period both in Opposition and in opposition to their party. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are going to start looking like attractive alternatives.
On the left of the Liberal Democrats siren calls to rebuild a progressive socially liberal Labour party with Ed Miliband uniting the lost tribes of anti-Conservatism is going to be a very tempting prospect. It will seem even more attractive if Labour can convince them that the fabric of the coalition government is so fragile that it might not last five years, let alone survive the next election. They are wrong in that regard, the current public narrative against cuts is one of a minority of shrill voices not a shift in opinion against tough action.
For Nick Clegg then he has just been gifted an historic opportunity to push Labour in the direction they’ve voted to go, and send them a tribute of oppositionalist talent into the bargain. He can hold the genuinely centre-left liberal vote by highlighting Union control of Labour, and pitching to the aspirational working family voters who don’t like their wages being spent on the client state. He can divide public sector workers between the genuinely talented and those filling in forms. He can appeal to centre and centre-right liberals by showing his opposition to Labour’s extremism. His first target should be seek a high profile New Labour defection.
None of this is guaranteed. Ed Miliband may prove as pragmatic in position as he was populist in securing it. Like Clegg and Ashdown his media presence and rapport may improve with time (he currently sounds stilted and uses too many platitudes). He may benefit from events and splits in the Coalition that cannot be predicted. New Labour may find comfort in a significant role for David and some kind of deal over other positions that keeps their hopes alive.
Labour is also factionally far more complex than the Blair-Brown years would suggest. The Unions are not united, the members in the main are as locally focused as Liberal Democrat activists and equally disinterested in ideology. The unity of the party in general has survived far more dramatic changes of direction than one brother beating another for the top job. They have come back from far more extreme leadership and domination by their left than this.
These are though interesting times… who will capture the political opportunities they present… only time will tell. Liberal Democrat prospects for the next election though look much brighter.