Brothers battle for leadership of Britain's Labour

31st August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Voting for a new leader of Britain's Labour party starts Wednesday, with one of two brothers tipped to win an election overshadowed by two heavyweights from the past -- Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The contest was triggered when Brown quit after May's general election at which Labour lost power for the first time in 13 years, making way for a coalition government under David Cameron of the centre-right Conservatives.

Ballot papers are being sent out Wednesday to around 160,000 Labour party members, who have a third of the votes, plus Labour lawmakers in the British and European parliaments who have another third, and trade unionists who get the final chunk.

The result will be announced on September 25, the day before Labour's annual conference begins in Manchester, northwest England.

The favourite to take over from Brown is former foreign secretary David Miliband. The 45-year-old is nicknamed "Brains" for the wonkish skills which saw him serve as a top policy advisor to Blair, to whom he remains close.

But David Miliband is facing a strong challenge from his younger brother Ed.

Aged 40 and seen as more charismatic than David, he was one of Brown's key advisors in the Treasury -- when Brown was Blair's finance minister -- and later became Brown's energy secretary.

The other candidates are pugnacious ex-education secretary Ed Balls, veteran left-winger Diane Abbott and youthful former health secretary Andy Burnham.

According to a projection last week for leading Labour blog Left Foot Forward, David Miliband has 36 percent of first preference votes, Ed Miliband has 31 percent, while Balls, Abbott and Burnham have 11 percent.

Politics runs deep in the Miliband family. David and Ed's late father was a famous Marxist thinker, Ralph Miliband, while their mother Marion was an activist and academic but has not said who she will be supporting in the election.

Both brothers insist the contest will not cause a rift in the Miliband household.

"Our family is solid and our family will still be sitting down for the Sunday roast whatever the outcome," Ed Miliband told the Sunday Mirror newspaper this week.

However, their past affiliations to Blair and Brown place David and Ed Miliband on different branches of Labour's family tree.

Blair was the key figure of the New Labour project in the 1990s, which took the party beyond its traditional working class roots and on to the centre ground, attracting more middle and upper class voters.

Labour held power under Blair for 10 years from 1997, although discontent among core voters grew during his time in office, particularly over the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

When Brown took over from Blair in 2007, he often tacked towards more left-wing pledges before being ousted after a rocky three years.

Much of the debate in the election for a new leader so far has focused on whether Labour should fight back by wooing the kind of middle class voters who supported Blair -- as advocated by David Miliband -- or focusing on disillusioned core supporters, as Ed Miliband suggests.

"Simple opposition takes us back to our comfort zone as a party of protest, big in heart but essentially naive, well meaning but behind the times," David Miliband wrote in The Times newspaper last week.

Ed Miliband -- who has drawn significant support pledges from trade unions who provide much of cash-strapped Labour's funding -- responded by turning his brother's words back on him, prompting media claims of a spat.

"Remaining in the New Labour comfort zone would consign us to opposition," he said.

The younger Miliband -- who has notably floated raising taxes on wealthier people -- has drawn a rebuke from another New Labour big beast, Lord Peter Mandelson, who was a minister and key advisor to both Blair and Brown.

"I think that if he or anyone else wants to create a pre-New Labour future for the party, then he and the rest of them will quickly find that is an electoral cul-de-sac," he told the BBC.

Neither Blair nor Brown has yet made their views public -- though Blair publishes his autobiography Wednesday, perhaps giving him an ideal opportunity to do so.

© 2010 AFP

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