New leader, new era for Britain's Labour Party

23rd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's Labour Party embarks on a new era Saturday, announcing its next leader who faces the difficult task of guiding the centre-left party back into government.

Dumped out of office after 13 years in power, the choice of leader will determine whether Labour takes a more centrist or left-wing approach to tackling the Conservative-Liberal Democrat governing coalition.

The field of five candidates to lead the party of former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has come down to a straight fight between brothers David and Ed Miliband, pitched firmly in the rival Blair and Brown camps.

Former foreign secretary David Miliband, a 45-year-old protege of Blair, is the favourite to win the ballot of Labour lawmakers and party members when the result is announced on Saturday.

His more left-leaning brother Ed, 40, the former energy and climate change minister and part of Brown's inner circle, is considered the closest of his four challengers.

And it appears down to the Milibands to determine whether the bitter rivalry between the Blair and Brown factions lives on or is finally buried.

At the same time, the new leader must give voters a credible alternative to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, whose coalition government of former political foes emerged after Labour lost the general election in May.

"The primary issue facing the new leader will be how to corral the party -- which given half a chance would risk rushing off into its own comfort zone -- into an effective, vote-winning form of opposition," Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, told AFP.

"The truth is that the Labour leader needs to hold the fragile coalition of the Labour Party together, while being an effective opposition, and also trying to win back traditional Labour voters and middle-class voters. That's quite a challenge," he said.

"Essentially they have to hunker down for the long haul and prepare for five years in opposition.

"Frankly, they also need to live with the fact that to win the next general election outright they will have to vastly improve their vote-winning performance."

The first test of the new leader will come immediately, as the party starts its five-day annual conference in Manchester, northwest England, on Sunday to thrash out where it stands in the new political landscape.

Bookmakers have made David Miliband the odds-on favourite, with his brother's chances slightly worse than evens, although Ed Miliband's odds have shortened in recent days as punters back him.

Former education secretary Ed Balls is a 40/1 shot at best, with ex-health secretary Andy Burnham at 100/1 and left-wing outsider Diane Abbott even more remote.

Labour Party members had a third of the votes; Labour lawmakers in the British and European parliaments have another third, while trade unionists get the last chunk. The polls closed Wednesday.

The subsequent conference will be the first time the party has met since former leader Blair published his account of his decade in power from 1997.

In "A Journey", Blair pinned election defeat on Brown veering away from his "New Labour" path and warned the party it now risked years in the wilderness.

"The danger for Labour now is that we drift off, or even move decisively off, to the left. If we do, we will lose even bigger next time," he wrote.

Labour should "focus attention on renewing the party, and it has to do this in a genuinely radical and modern way.

"Labour has no option but to be credible in its own right.

"It means being flexible enough to attack the government from left and from right."

The conference is likely to boost morale in the party, but experts warn it may be shortlived.

A YouGov poll for The Sun newspaper on Wednesday put Labour and the Conservatives on 39 percent -- the first time they had the two parties level since the "honeymoon" after Brown became leader in 2007.

The Liberal Democrats were on 13 percent.

© 2010 AFP

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