If his somewhat unexpected victory at the end of a close-fought campaign for the leadership of Labour party came as a surprise, Ed Miliband did not show it.
On Saturday evening, as he scraped past elder brother Dave by a razor-thin margin of votes, Ed looked the part of Britain’s opposition leader.
With a half-nod and a smile, the 40-year-old scion of British socialist aristocracy strode up to the stage. There was, however, one moment of emotional spillage amid the high drama of the contest. David, seated three seats away, was the first among the leadership candidates to be on his feet, cheering. Ed walked up to David, who in turn gave his kid brother a warm hug.
Ed Miliband is now firmly ensconced in the centre stage of British politics — the slim 1.3 per cent margin of victory notwithstanding, it is he who must lead Labour at a particularly difficult moment in its history. Having seen his party rule for 13 years and then beaten by the Conservatives, Ed has to address the demands of Labour’s core working-class voters while attempting to re-engage the middle classes.
Does this mean that the Labour Tony Blair built up in the mid-nineties, a party that pursued centrist polices, is all but gone? Is the party back to the days of heady trade unionism? And, given the fact that in the election Ed Miliband did not get the support of the party’s legislators, meaning the middle-class segment in Labour, he may find it tough to ensure that his writ runs uniformly.
Ed is eminently suited to play a balancing act. The son of British Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband, he was brought up in a socialist household. But the adult Ed has more in common with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat coalition partner Nick Clegg than old-style Labour socialists.
In style, education and policies, say analysts, there is little to differentiate among the men at the helm of British politics — David, Nick, Ed and his beaten brother Dave (who is reportedly mulling the offer of a shadow cabinet job). Even so, Ed stood out as the “change candidate”, and positioned himself to the left of his brother in order to win the crucial support of workers unions.
Whether and how far he will be his own man from now on is the big question. Britain has only just begun to emerge from its worst recession in 60 years, but already talk of a looming double-dip recession is rife. How Ed will approach the issue of tackling Britain’s deficit — at £155 billion the third-largest among the world’s richest nations — will be his first test as opposition leader.
The ruling coalition’s plan for ending the deficit during the life of the current government has won the approval of the International Monetary Fund. The previous Labour government’s idea was to halve the deficit by 2014-15 on the back of a moderate plan that it argued would stop Britain slipping into a second recession.
Whether or not a double-dip recession has hit Britain will not be known until the end of 2011 but the outcome “will have a profound effect on British politics,” Tony Travers of the London School of Economics told HT.
Somewhat perversely, a double-dip could enhance Ed’s standing. But if the coalition government’s debt-cutting plan succeeds and Britain is shown to have avoided another recession, Prime Minister David Cameron will have won the day — and possibly another term.