Labour Elects Leader as U.K. Polls Show Party Gaining Ground

The U.K. Labour Party names its new leader today with polls suggesting the only national opposition to Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling coalition is gaining support as government spending cuts bite.

David Miliband or his brother Ed, both former Cabinet ministers, will win the contest to succeed Gordon Brown, polls and bookmakers indicate. The winner will be announced at 4 p.m. in Manchester, northern England, as delegates gather for the party’s annual conference.

Whoever becomes leader will have 25 days to marshal an opposition team and prepare a strategy for attacking the cuts being planned by the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrat partners that took power after the May 6 election. Departments face reductions of a quarter on average by 2015 in the spending review to be announced on Oct. 20.

“The winner could be prime minister in five years and the job is going to be tough,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, a professor of politics at Bristol University, in a telephone interview. “Whoever wins is going to have to stamp their personality on the party pretty quickly.”

A poll on Sept. 21 by YouGov Plc put Cameron’s Conservatives, the senior party in the coalition, neck and neck with Labour at 39 percent. Brown resigned as prime minister and Labour leader after the party slumped to 29 percent of the vote in May, seven points behind the Tories.

Rival Bids

The rival leadership bids of David Miliband, a protege of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his younger brother, a former aide to Brown, have dominated the five-candidate race. The other candidates are former Children’s Secretary Ed Balls, once the closest adviser to Brown, former Health Secretary Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott, who in 1987 became the first black woman in Parliament.

The race is Labour’s first contested leadership election since 1994, when Blair won the party’s backing following the sudden death of John Smith. Brown replaced Blair in 2007 without a challenge.

Labour’s electoral college is split into three, with lawmakers, union members and party cardholders each making up a third. Voters list candidates in order of preference, with the candidate getting fewest votes in each round eliminated, and further choices redistributed until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the votes. Voting ended Sept. 22.

Seeds of Division

In his memoir “A Journey,” published Sept. 1, Blair said that his agreement with Brown that only one of them would run for leader in 1994 sowed the seeds for battles over policy that came to dominate his premiership. Brown was increasingly at odds with Blair’s favored approach of bringing more competition into the provision of public services such as health.

The Milibands were on opposite sides, with David, 45, working for Blair as a proponent of “New Labour” while Ed, 40, was in the Treasury with Brown. Ed has cited his experience of the feud as a justification for running against his brother -- something unprecedented in modern British politics -- and disputing policy openly.

David argued during the leadership campaign the party must leave the Blair-Brown era behind to become “Next Labour,” renewing its ideas, doubling its membership and ensuring one third of its ministers-in-waiting are female.

Ed said Labour should reach out more to unions, the voluntary sector, community and environmental groups. He also said he wants to move away from the old divisions and supports more women at the top of the party.

‘I Love David’

Speaking to the Sunday Mirror newspaper last month, the brothers denied suggestions the contest had created a rift between them. “I love David very much and I still will when this is over,” the Mirror cited Ed as saying.

David, nicknamed “Brains” when he served in the former prime minister’s policy unit, became a lawmaker for the northeastern district of South Shields in 2001. He entered the Cabinet four years later, serving as environment secretary and then moving to the Foreign Office. He argued Labour lost in May because voters weren’t convinced it was committed to Blair’s ideas to improve public services.

Ed entered Parliament in 2005, winning election in Doncaster in northern England. He joined the Cabinet in 2007, became energy secretary the following year and wrote Labour’s election program. His attacks on Blair’s policies, including the Iraq War, helped him win the backing of six labor unions and led the Daily Mail newspaper to dub him “Red Ed.”

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