Can Ed Miliband’s closest colleagues emerge from the shadows to present an electable leadership team for Labour?
Ever since last year’s Labour leadership election, Ed Miliband has had what seems the weight of the world upon his shoulders. His less than convincing appointment has led to a tenuous standing within the Labour Party, one susceptible to criticism from within, and also one that has made even his smallest mistakes seem all the more damaging. This has placed the party in a precarious state; the apparent disunity of its various factions and ridicule of its new leader has made them appear even less electable than before. The News International scandal, however, has provided a new lease on life for Miliband. Although his role in the saga has been in many ways exaggerated, his conduct has been respected far more than that of the Prime Minister, and he has at last gained some genuine credibility as leader of the opposition. The viability of an elected Labour Party has grown with Miliband, and the figures of Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper have emerged to provide the support that he needs to transform the party into a major political force once again.
Last week’s conference has signaled an indisputable shift to the left for the Labour Party, and a return to pre-New Labour values. While the extent of the shift has been, some would argue, overstated, this ideological move has the potential to become a seminal moment in the history of the Labour Party. At such an important point in the parties’ history, the four Labour MPs in the shadow great offices of state have an important role in consolidating the transition. Miliband, Balls, Alexander and Cooper are all barely out of their 30s, but have countless years of political experience between them. As a team of relatively young politicians, all with significant ministerial experience, now is the ideal time for them to increase their public profile, and broadcast the skills of Labour’s most prominent and talented individuals.
The Party Conference granted the perfect platform to Ed Balls to instigate such an idea. As shadow chancellor, and fresh from contention in the Party leadership race, Balls was given the most important role from which to attack the coalition’s economic policies. In his speech he predictably called out the coalition government for their welfare and public sector cuts, but not excessively so. Careful to avoid self-indulgent Tory-bashing, the cornerstone of his speech was his 5-point growth package. Balls positioned himself starkly against the ‘reckless, ideological’ austerity measures imposed by George Osborne, and reaffirmed his party’s support for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
Balls will have endeared himself to some with his speech, small businesses were lured with the promise of national insurance holidays and VAT cuts, but there is still the lingering question of how Balls plans to pay for these measures. The pledge of long-term investment projects centered on schools and infrastructure appears to align with Ed Miliband’s socially democratic aspirations, but something most feel wont be too difficult for the Conservatives to find a response at their conference next week. Nonetheless, Balls has moved strongly to clarify Labour’s new leftward stance, and his role will be an important one both leading up to the next general election, and also in power should the party achieve election next time around.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander had another relative crisis to answer for, and regarded the ‘long shadow’ of Iraq as a central theme in his conference speech. While he conceded that the Iraq war is still a dominant feature of policy for any prospective foreign secretary, he appeared to encourage a distancing from the conflict, while still hoping to maintain strong links with the armed forces community. It is unsurprising that foreign policy is a less topical political issue than the economy for now, but Alexander certainly views it as central to any future Labour Party doctrine, no doubt due to the party’s misguided actions in that field still lingering in the recent memory of the British public.
Now though, could be the perfect time for Alexander to play down the link between the Iraq war and the Labour Party. He has diverted attention towards the Labour Party’s recent support for the Arab Spring uprising, and an end to the valuing of stability over democracy in the Middle East. Drawing attention to Conservative plans to cut the army by around 7,000 soldiers and 5,000 sailors hints at an aspiration to improve relations with the armed forces. This notion, along with becoming the party of small business, seems farfetched, but any reform based around restoring the strength of the armed forces and leaving the burden of Iraq behind is bound to make Douglas Alexander a popular figure, and one whose presence in the public eye can be nothing but good for the Labour Party.
Perhaps the individual who has had their profile raised the most during the Labour Party conference is shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper. Hers was the speech that attacked the coalition most specifically, with a strong focus on the deep cuts to the police budget in the wake of this summer’s riots. She highlighted the weaknesses of Conservative plans, yet also admitted to Labour’s own mistakes; something one feels will provide her significant public support. Touted as a possible successor to Ed Miliband as leader of the party, she has great incentive to raise her own profile. While Miliband has struggled to maintain any consistent support within the party during his reign, Cooper is a popular and respected figure amongst her peers. She has the potential to become instrumental in the progression of a new-look Labour Party, and her speech at last week’s conference may be looked back on as the moment she became one of the leading public figures within the party.
The main question, however, is can this leadership team succeed in securing re-election for a Labour Party that was looking decidedly broken only a year and a half ago. The tension between, in particular, Balls and Miliband does nothing for party relations, and Yvette Cooper’s refusal to rule out a leadership bid makes Miliband’s position even more uncertain. All four figures at the top end of the Labour Party have immense talent in their respective fields, and all have an important role to play in the future development of the party, but ultimately a rise in public awareness does nothing to remedy its internal issues. Disunity still plagues the Labour Party, and while it continues to, a successful election in the near future seems all the more unlikely.