At the Labour Party Conference, Manchester, UK
Party leadership battles are never easy on party unity: for a short period of time -- in this case four months -- members are required to invest all their passions in one candidate and perceive the others as the enemy. In the case of the UK Labour Party, the challenge quickly narrowed down from five contenders to a choice of brothers: David and Ed Miliband, the two sons of the late Ralph Miliband, the British academic Marxist.
Not for them the Kennedyesque agreement to allow the elder a chance before giving way to the younger. Instead, by entering the race as competitors, campaigners for each brother were forced to create significant differences where there were actually very few, and damaged the advantage of their natural alliance as the party begins its stint in opposition.
Add to that the strange anomaly of a voting system that works from a blend of first choice and least worst and you have the result Labour had today: disorientation. With 37.78% of the vote against 34.33% for the runner up, David the elder won the first round of a competition in which most voters can only vote once. However, in the domino effect of four further rounds of eliminations and redistributions, Ed finally won with 50.65% to his older brother's 49.35%.
A fair contest, proportionalists would say (meaning those who support Alternative Voting systems). Not so, first-past-the-posters would respond, especially since -- due to the complicated electoral college -- some voters had as many as four votes, while others had only one. But AV is Labour's internal voting system and it's an electoral reform they are currently selling to the wider nation. Tricky to disown it now.
All credit then to the Labour Conference that gave a warm welcome to a leader which only a minority of them chose -- though the conversations in the overflowing bars afterwards were less gracious. Hopefully a few stiff drinks and a heavy policy agenda will do wonders to bind then together again quickly.
The last time I witnessed this close a call was between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama in the race to be the Democrats' candidate. But they only had a month to regain their unity: like lovers in an earthquake movie, they wasted no time on niceties before falling into an embrace. Barring any surprises, Labour will have five years in opposition to forge their party unity. Having lived through ten years of tremors between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown already, the Labourites may now be accustomed to internal rifts and deem them inevitable in any broad based party.
Since the election, Labour has gained 34,719 new members -- many of them refugees or returnees from the Liberal Democrats who, against expectations, joined with the Conservative Party to form the current government. With the impact of the recession and massive cuts in services not yet felt, Labour can look forward to a growing disenchantment with the Coalition, particularly from those in the political centre who were persuaded to vote for a shift towards the right in May. But if they're not presented with a strong, coherent alternative vision, backed up by an effortlessly united party, the British electorate will continue to go along with the government as the devil they know.
What could be worse than the followers of David Miliband picking over the reasons for their failure for months to come, waiting only for Ed Miliband to slip? Or the followers of Ed Miliband (for it is unlikely to be the brothers themselves) blaming every slip or tumble of their leader on brother David briefing against him? The worst case scenario would see the elder sibling once the UK's Foreign Secretary and a global diplomatic player -- departing the scene altogether to give his brother a better chance of uniting the party.
But there is also a best-case scenario. This would see the new leader of the party going out of his way to acknowledge and capitalise on the very different contributions that David's followers made to the party during the race. In particular, Ed would do well to embrace the thousand-strong group of 'future leaders' which arose from the Movement for Change, founded by David as a future model for party and community activism. While Ed got the headlines for his promises to reclaim the grass roots of the party, his brother's Movement for Change (known as M4C) was concretely activating the grass roots, by holding Obamaesque training sessions for community organisers.
Only hours before the leadership announcement, I witnessed a local Manchester M4C group in action. They staged a transformation of concrete wall in the middle of Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens -- a subject of fierce local debate -- into a Living Wall, with masses of hand drawn flowers attached with clothes pegs. Although it was a playful intervention to draw the attention of local councillors and media as well as the public, it had a deeper intent -- to highlight the lack of green space in Manchester, the absence of which has had a whole range of effects on physical and mental health in the community. Before the action there was a morning's training: after the action, a half-hour's evaluation. The participants of all ages in the room were energised and excited about the prospect of further local actions like this.
There has been much talk that Ed has attracted a new generation of young people to Labour through his work on climate change. At 40, he is easily the youngest of the UK party leaders. What could be more exciting -- and unifying -- for this next generation of party activists, than to join the Movement for Change and make it fly? Then David's contribution to the success of the Labour Party in the coming years will be properly integrated with, rather than competing with, Ed's leadership. In addition to the party unity and the social value their partnership would generate, it might -- after a calm but not entirely gentle contest between the brothers -- make their Mum happy too.