The challenge for the Labour Party in Britain as it seeks a new leader

All candidates will have to come to terms with changes to political identities in the UK

The British Labour Party has been pitched into a leadership contest after its defeat in the UK election was followed immediately by Ed Miliband's resignation. Candidates declaring from its several different political currents have until September to campaign among the party's hundreds of thousands of members if they secure minimum support by next month. Most polling was discredited by the election result but more comprehensive exit and follow up polls help clarify what happened to surprise commentators who overwhelmingly expected a hung parliament.

These figures tell a story about a much more effective Conservative leader with a more credible programme than Labour's. Together with Labour's catastrophic loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP, which far outweighed Ukip's threat to the Conservatives in England, and the Tories' successful targeting of Liberal Democrats there, they explain much of what happened.

Candidates for the Labour leadership have so far defined themselves largely in terms of the party's long-standing divisions between the New Labour position adopted by its former leader Tony Blair in appealing to centre ground swinging voters and older left-wing traditions towards which Mr Miliband gravitated but did not fully embrace. Liz Kendall is in the former camp, emphasising the need for economic reform and modernisation, while Andy Burnham is near the other, supported by major trade unions. Yvette Cooper largely continues Miliband's positioning, while Tristram Hunt searches for a fresh way of understanding and articulating Labour's potential appeal, going beyond the Blair years.

All must come to terms with major changes in the UK’s political identities and structures and in British society. After the SNP’s clean sweep of Scottish seats Labour faces a daunting task of recovery there and cannot assume it will ever dominate as before. Its safe seats in northern and midlands England are threatened by deep and growing inequalities with London and the southeast and a failure to think through these problems imaginatively, exposing them to competition from Ukip. Labour’s London strongholds are part of a more cosmopolitan and aspirational setting increasingly distinct from other regions. Labour probably suffered from its close association with the Conservatives in campaigning against Scottish independence last year. These candidates all face a major challenge in thinking through how their party can hold the UK together by major constitutional and electoral change to head off the SNP’s appeal.


Labour also needs to position itself clearly on the question of UK membership of the European Union. The Conservatives are divided on it, while Labour has an opportunity to campaign for their state to stay in and play a constructive role.