Britain's opposition chief seeks to find his voice

AFP , Friday 23 Sep 2011

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Ed Milliband, seeks to increase his popularity and leadership during the annual party conference on Sunday

Ed Miliband, one year into his leadership of Britain's opposition Labour Party, has his work cut out at their annual conference to dispel doubts about his ability to propel them back to power.

Voted out last year after 13 years in office, Labour will be looking to Miliband to set out their alternative vision on repairing Britain's economic and social ills, at the five-day gathering in Liverpool which starts Sunday.

In a shock result, Miliband, 41, narrowly beat his more experienced elder brother David to the job at last year's conference, largely with the help of trade unionist votes.

"After a year as leader, most British people don't really know Ed Miliband," said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. "And the bit they do know, they're not sure about."

While his predecessors as leader of the centre-left party, prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, loom large over British politics, Miliband has yet to make his mark with voters.

Some 57 percent of British adults have no idea what he stands for, according to a ComRes poll conducted last week.

Commentators say his slightly awkward presence, geeky persona and nasal diction make his task all the harder.

This conference is "his first chance to establish his public credentials," said Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

While Britain's governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition struggles to coax the economy into life while also imposing deep spending cuts, Labour under Miliband have yet to establish a clear alternative economic policy.

He said the "big theme" in Liverpool will be the need to "rip up the rule book" and take on "a political consensus that needs to be challenged and changed".

He told the New Statesman magazine that "the squeezed middle, what's happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom" were part of "an economic and political settlement of some decades" that had to be rewritten.

In a bid to break with the past, Miliband has called time on the 'New Labour' era fostered by Blair, which ditched the party's socialist dogma and reached out beyond traditional blue collar voters.

But in the foreword to a new book, Blair warned that Labour would not win the 2015 general election unless it occupies the centre ground, "where the aspiring working class and the middle class tend to congregate".

Despite some underwhelming performances in parliament, Miliband did manage to strike a blow in July with a strong intervention on the newspaper phone hacking scandal, forcing Prime Minister David Cameron into launching a judge-led inquiry.

However, he did not maintain the momentum during the riots which rocked England in August.

In a survey for The Times, two-thirds of voters, including 49 percent of Labour voters, said they found it difficult to imagine him as prime minister.

Even within Labour, Miliband's position "is constantly under attack" from those who thought his brother should have been leader, Fielding said, even though he said David Miliband would have fared no better.

To avoid causing a distraction, the former foreign secretary is to address a single fringe meeting at the conference on Sunday before heading straight to Washington for a speech on China's rise.

Ed Miliband, a former environment minister, was a chief aide to Brown during his decade as finance minister.

Despite receiving the crucial support of the unions last year, he annoyed them this month by telling their annual congress that their planned strikes were premature.

Furthermore, in Liverpool he will propose changing the rules for electing leaders -- moves which will largely water down the unions' influence.

He is keen to avoid falling into the "Red Ed" trap laid by right-leaning newspapers.

However much Miliband presents himself as the representative of the hard-pressed middle classes, Cameron will nonetheless link him to Labour racking up a record deficit during the boom, Fielding said.

All in all, "the fate of the British economy" will decide Labour's fortunes, he concluded.

If Britain dips back into recession, "Miliband's chances of becoming prime minister -- whether he sounds like a geek or not -- massively improve".

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