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Moving on from Blair: British Labour selects new leader

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By Anthony Painter
The British Labour party has ditched Tony Blair and his legacy. That is the simple message from Saturday's victory of Ed Miliband in the gruesomely complex electoral college of labor unions, party members, and Members of Parliament that elects a Labour leader. The margin was narrow at 50.65% against the 49.35% polled by his older brother (yes, you read right, his brother), David Miliband.

Ed Miliband's victory signals a deeper realignment that has happened in British politics ever since the general election of earlier this year led to no party securing an overall majority. Prime Minister David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' has been given a liberal edge - in the British sense of the word that focuses on individual freedom - through the inclusion in a coalition of the centrist Liberal Democratic party led by Nick Clegg.

The Coalition has prioritised an unparalleled contraction of the public sector in order to close a yawning fiscal deficit. The idea is that this will remove barriers to investment and growth in the private sector as well as repairing public finances. Alongside that, the Coalition is pursuing a series of policies designed to expand civic action, enhance individual choice with regard to public services and pursue more liberal criminal justice policies. It fuses liberal and conservative concerns about the state's negative impact on enterprise and individual liberty. Ideologically it is liberal conservative.

What is interesting is how the election of the younger Miliband will change Labour's ideological positioning. To appreciate the change it is important to understand that New Labour was a hydra-headed beast.

Gordon Brown was a traditional social democrat who essentially saw the state as benign and a vehicle to address inequality by redistributing in the form of increased welfare and public services. Tony Blair took a slightly different view. He agreed that massive increases of public expenditure were necessary to address the underfunding of education and health in the Thatcher-Major years. But he saw the state as riddled with wastefulness, inflexibility, and far from benign. This was a persistent fault-line in the New Labour years. Blair described himself as a liberal in his recently published memoirs. Gordon Brown considers himself to be a European style social democrat and even a socialist. Blair and Brown were not just at each other's throats personally. Ideologically they were as well.

Ed Miliband rejects the authoritarianism of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that was a signature approach of New Labour. Both bought in to the politics of pitching to the centre of British politics that tends to expect a strong and uncompromising state response to crime, illegal immigration, and any perceived terrorist threat. The adoption of more liberal policies on criminal justice by the Coalition has allowed Ed Miliband to move on this front also. All three of the UK's major parties are now socially liberal and more liberal on criminal justice.

When it comes to the role of the state there is most definitely not a consensus between Labour and the Coalition. In fact, it will be the primary dividing line in British politics over the next few years. On this, Ed Miliband tends towards the Brownite rather the the Blairite view. His platform will be about defending the level of public provision that Labour expanded during its 13 years in office along with some relatively minor reform of the way its delivered if his campaign is an accurate reflection of where he stands.

This makes the political divide in British politics stark. Strangely, it also puts Tony Blair closer to the Coalition outlook than that of the party he led for almost a decade and a half. That won't concern Ed Miliband in the slightest. Part of his campaign pitch was that Labour needed to move on from New Labour and, by implication, Tony Blair.

The fact that Peter Mandelson, one of the primary architects of New Labour, and Blair himself, both published explosive memoirs during the leadership election helped Ed Miliband make his case and damaged his brother. Perhaps it was these New Labour voices that won it for Ed Miliband - quite possible given the narrowness of the winning margin. That it was Gordon Brown who was the final speaker before the new leader was announced underlined a sense that this is a passing on of the Brownite mantle. It was Ed Miliband who wrote Gordon Brown and Labour's election manifesto earlier this year. Tony Blair was nowhere to be seen.

British politics is now a clear choice between Ed Miliband's liberal social democracy and David Cameron and the Coalition's liberal conservatism. Of course, the economy is a wild card in all this. If it dips back into recession as some of a more Keynesian disposition are predicting then all bets are off. If the Coalition avoids that cataclysm then the liberalism of both options - David Cameron and Ed Miliband - will cancel each other out. It is their vision of the future of the state and public services that will matter.

If the British public buy the Coalition's argument that paring back the state is a prudent necessity given the scale of the deficit and the Coalition manages the politics of deficit reduction competently then Cameron will remain Prime Minister after the election which will most probably be in 2015. If they decide that the previous Labour government's public investment should be defended at all costs then Ed Miliband will become Prime Minister.

A significant number of voters who swing between the two parties believe state spending to be wasteful, inflexible, and impersonal. The question is whether they consider that to be reason enough to go for the Coalition's radical attack on the public sector. The next election depends on it.

In selecting Ed Miliband as its leader, Labour has discarded Tony Blair and has largely gone for a updated program of his successor, Gordon Brown. British politics will be polarised over the next few years around the question of the role of the state. The outcome of that is far from clear. What is clear after Labour's leadership election is the game plan. In many ways it's the heir to Brown versus the heir to Blair. New Labour doesn't die. It just metamorphoses and divides.

Anthony Painter blogs at http://www.anthonypainter.co.uk