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22 January 2010

Join the debate: Miliband brothers key to Labour’s future?

Exclusive: Or will Brown stay on even if he loses?

By James Macintyre

Just a reminder that you can join the debate over who should be the next Labour leader, a question we put to a number of influential political figures in a feature for this week’s magazine.

The cover line implies that Ed Miliband will be leader, a possibility that I tipped back in 2008, when I wrote that he would come to be seen as Gordon Brown’s natural successor at a time when he was far from the fashionable potential candidate he is now. But, as Andrew Sparrow has pointed out on his Guardian blog, Ed is endorsed by the same number of people — two, in Rory Hattersley and David Marquand — as David, who received the backing of Lance Price and Meghnad Desai.

It is true that Hattersley’s words are an indication of the thinking inside mainstream Labour — after all, he backed Blair over Brown in 1994 (one of many demonstrations why the “Brown was robbed” myth is just that: a myth). On the other hand, David Miliband has been the strong favourite before, and may yet emerge as the front-runner again. (Not to mention the possibility that Ed would not bring himself to challenge David.)

Either way, with Ed Balls languishing in relative unpopularity, and Harriet Harman apparently determined not to run for the top job, it does indeed look as if the future of the Labour Party lies with David and Ed Miliband.

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Unless . . .

I am picking up from some close to Brown that he is determined to stay on even if Labour loses the next election. In the NS feature, Sunder Katwala makes the point that if Labour loses, it must get the subsequent contest “right”. This means Brown staying on to stabilise the party. “If Labour loses, Gordon must stay!” is Katwala’s eye-catching appeal. But, having spoken to him after his entry, he is clear that Brown would have to make way eventually, probably after a few months.

Yet one senior Brown aide says that the Prime Minister has made it clear that he will draw on the history of the Labour Party to insist that he will not step aside. Clement Attlee, after all, didn’t resign until four years after he lost the 1951 election. Harold Wilson was prime minister twice after staying on in 1970, winning again in 1974. And even Jim Callaghan stayed on for a year after losing in 1979.

“These people who think Gordon would go after losing have no understanding of the history of the Labour Party,” says my source. “We do not bring down our leaders in the way the Tories do.”

When I asked if this was really possible, the source replied: “You mark my words.”

We shall see. The prospect may be in line with Labour’s history, but whether it is conceivable in the 24-hour media age is another matter. Either way, the very idea will infuriate Brown’s critics.

UPDATE: Katwala has extended his theory here, explaining his “first law of political recovery”, that: “No party which loses a general election should elect its next leader within the first six months following the defeat.”