Will the real Ed Miliband please stand up?

His early supporters thought the Labour leader had the courage and intellectual energy to remake British politics. So what happened to the optimism?

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the leader of the Labour Party,” declaims the bespectacled man in the dark suit, whom none of the assembled journalists has recognised as the mayor of Newham. “. . . And our next prime minister!” In the tiny pause that follows, a sceptical ripple passes through the audience. It is less audible than a titter, more like the rustle of a hundred eyebrows simultaneously raised in quizzical arches. “. . . Ed Milibaaand!” Applause.

We are at a conference centre overlooking one of east London’s grey-blue docks. On the far bank, a light aircraft stands on the runway of City Airport. But it could be any set-piece speech by the Labour leader. The format and the formulaic introduction are always the same – and I’ve seen a few. The reaction is the same, too. Even when the crowd is padded out with loyal party members, there is palpable disbelief at the assertion that Miliband will make it to Downing Street.

Yet arithmetic says that is the likeliest bet in 2015. If the Conservatives perform any worse than they did in 2010 – and there aren’t many reasons why they should do better – David Cameron is finished. With left-leaning refugees from the Liberal Democrats bolstering Miliband’s core vote and Ukip cannibalising Cameron’s, it is relatively easy for Labour to overtake the Tories. The number-crunchers in Miliband’s team have projections that push him over the parliamentary finish line with a vote share as small as 34 per cent. That should be a doddle against a divided government in a debilitated economy. In Labour’s worst-case scenarios, Miliband would lead a minority administration or coalition. He’d still be in No 10. “All the evidence shows that Ed Miliband is odds-on to become the next prime minister, even if he doesn’t quite win a majority,” says Andrew Harrop, the general secretary of the Fabian Society. “But the politicians and journalists who saw him as an outsider haven’t been able to make the psychological adjustment.”

Westminster doesn’t treat Miliband as a winner – and neither do many Labour MPs. “I backed Ed because I thought he would grow into the role,” says a prominent member of the cohort elected in 2010. “Now I don’t think he can. I don’t think we can win from here.” We are drinking tea in Portcullis House, the modern parliamentary annexe under whose vast, vaulted glass roof politicians, aides and journalists trade gossip on condition of anonymity. In their public pronouncements Labour MPs still put up a formidable front of unity, but sit down for a quiet cuppa and you quickly uncover gloomy forecasts of defeat.The party’s mood seems out of kilter with its maths. Why?

The accusations against the leader are many and often contradictory. He has failed to distance himself enough from New Labour and failed to defend the party’s record in office. He evades the truth about tight budgets and embraces austerity too eagerly. He has too little policy and too much. The party’s opinion poll lead feels soft – a lucky dividend from coalition mishaps, not an endorsement of the opposition. Three years of denouncing George Osborne have not succeeded in transferring blame for Britain’s economic malaise from the last regime to the incumbent one.

In Miliband’s office there is frustration that the leader gets so little credit for bringing the party even within sight of victory when expectations started so low. “I genuinely think we’re doing better than most people seem to realise,” says a very senior aide. “It’s a point-in-the-parliament thing.”

Those in Miliband’s inner circle insist there is a long game being played that takes account of two factors often overlooked by commentators: first, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which deprives Cameron of any element of surprise in the timing of an election and, second, the lack of precedent to judge how oppositions ought to be performing against coalitions under extreme economic conditions. This, say Miliband’s friends, makes it unwise to start revealing a policy hand too early. As one close adviser puts it: “There are two groups of people who want us to have more policies – the Tories, so they can attack them with the full resources of government at their disposal, and the media, so they have something to write about.”

Uncertain times require reticence, for now, until the party rolls out its agenda for government next year. That has always been the plan, says another Miliband confidant; jitters and jeers were anticipated. “We always knew this would be a consequence of the strategic choices we made, but you’ve got to hold your nerve. Real credibility demands we wait.”

Meanwhile, veterans of more fractious periods in Labour history recognise the intrinsic value of a united front – even if it is brittle and achieved by deferring difficult choices. “Silence on some things is the price you pay for unity at this stage,” says David Owen, one of the moderates who broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981. “[Miliband’s] heart is in the right place and he’s created conditions that really maximise party unity . . . It’s realistic for him to want to keep his options open now.”

No one can say with any confidence how well he is pulling off the task of returning an exiled party to government within one term, because it hasn’t been done recently. For a generation, politics has been played out over long cycles – 18 years of Tory rule, ending in Tony Blair’s landslide victory, then 13 years of New Labour, culminating in crushing defeat.

In 2010 there was a presumption in the media and parliament alike that Labour was due a spell in the wilderness. That view was reinforced by a leadership contest that unexpectedly led to the crowning of the younger Miliband brother. Tory strategists punched the air when Ed’s victory was announced. Grandees from the Blair era texted each other with variations on the theme “We’re screwed”. The received wisdom had it that the opposition would self-immolate on the margins as the real battles were fought in the novel arena of coalition government. Instead, Labour remained disciplined and bounced back within two years. No circular firing squads; no lurches to the hard left.

Much of the negativity around Miliband, his cheerleaders say, reflects a habit of mind that hasn’t caught up with the facts. There is an irreconcilable faction that harbours a feeling that Ed didn’t even win the leadership election properly, because he was not the first choice of most party members or MPs. It was the trade unions that tipped the scales in his favour.

Grumbling about the process glosses over important features of Miliband’s pitch to the party. His candidacy wouldn’t have got off the ground without insight into what the left wanted after 13 years of Labour government. The movement was demoralised by the compromises demanded by power. It was in reactive mode, recoiling from the Blair-Brown embrace of a version of free-market capitalism that seemed to have expired in the 2007- 2008 financial crisis. Surely, Labour told itself, the pendulum was about to swing left.

That instinct is fundamental to the emerging Miliband doctrine. It holds that there was a thread of ideological continuity running from the Conservative governments in the 1980s into the New Labour years – a deference to laissez-faire capitalism that reached a catastrophic climax in the financial crisis. Central to the Labour leader’s self-belief is the conviction that Britain is ripe for transformation equivalent in scale to the social and economic revolution planned by intellectual conservatives in the late 1970s and unleashed by Margaret Thatcher.

In 2010, given the context of the biggest crisis in capitalism in living memory, many on the left felt that a candidate who spoke with sincere passion about reversing inequality and restoring a national spirit of solidarity could reawaken a dormant socialdemocratic impulse in the British electorate. Backers of the junior Miliband thought he might be the one.

“Ed seemed to be someone who had a genuine view of what social-democratic politics could be,” Roy Hattersley, a veteran of Lab - our’s long march through opposition in the 1980s, told me. “I hoped and believed he would articulate that.” Miliband also had the enthusiastic support of Neil Kinnock.

For many supporters of New Labour, those endorsements sounded like the doomed rallying cry of pious losers who had spent their chance to win power with the party’s landmark defeat by John Major in 1992. Many walked away. Senior figures, including exministers and top policy advisers, refused invitations to work in the leader’s office. David Miliband twice rejected offers to join the shadow cabinet. James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, turned down the chance to be Ed’s chief of staff. The post went unfilled for over a year before being taken by Tim Livesey, a former diplomat and adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Most elections are followed by a honeymoon period. Miliband had none. One consequence of the loneliness of that time is the Labour leader’s enduring dependence on the handful of people who believed in him from the start. He consults widely on both the left and the right of the party, but insiders say there is a clear hierarchy of trust based on purity of conviction.

At the innermost core are those with impeccable credentials as early adopters of the Ed philosophy: Stewart Wood, the Oxford academic, former Treasury official and exadviser to Gordon Brown who now has the title of shadow minister without portfolio, and Marc Stears, an old Oxford University friend of Miliband who this year took the formal role of chief speechwriter. Outsiders see the leader’s operation as an intellectual clique whose remoteness from the body of the party is exaggerated by the location of the leader of the opposition’s official suite of rooms at the top of Norman Shaw South, a dingy, red-brick, Edwardian-era addition to the parliamentary estate.

Miliband’s walls are lined with reproductions of vintage 1940s Labour campaign posters and visitors report that the atmosphere sometimes owes more to a protracted seminar in a university faculty than a campaign headquarters. First drafts of speeches, born with radical intent, are drained of passion in endless committee revisions. There is a rearguard action, often led by Tom Baldwin, Miliband’s  senior communications adviser, to impose “punter-friendly” language – translating the abstract ideas into something that might mean something to voters.

Miliband employs a small army of policy experts, but very few feel authorised to debate the underlying strategic judgement – the belief in Britain’s hunger for a new moralising account of how the economy should be structured. Members of Labour’s front bench are judged by their zeal in advancing the “responsible capitalism agenda”. Shadow ministers are accused of failing to do their share of “the heavy lifting” in developing the argument. There is muttering in the leader’s office about a lack of intellectual ambition on the opposition benches at a time when David Cameron, by contrast, has an embarrassment of ideological outriders on his right flank.

The riposte from the shadow cabinet is that ambitions to outride are thwarted by caution in the leader’s office. Attempts to set out innovative positions are fed into the central machine, where they are suffocated with caveats. (When this is put to Miliband’s team the response is withering: “We aren’t aware of some great bubbling-up of ideas.”)

Shadow ministers and MPs struggle with the leader’s ponderous attitude to decisionmaking. They accuse his office of lacking agility, failing to get the best TV clips into the evening news bulletins on days when big stories are breaking. “There is too much sitting around for four days and then giving something to the Observer which no one will read,” says a frontbencher of Miliband’s supposedly rapid responses. “There’s too much of Labour telling people what they should be worried about, when we want them to be worried about it.”

Miliband has made it clear that he won’t be bounced into taking positions when newspapers demand it, because the Tories have set some parliamentary trap or because a subject happens to be dominating the 24-hour news schedule. He isn’t fazed by the “daily froth”, say friends. He intervenes when he has worked out what exactly what kind of intervention he wants to make.

The Docklands speech was months in gestation. It was designed to be the definitive response to criticisms that Labour lacked an adequate response to Tory promises to cap welfare spending – a position that George Osborne has been using to discomfit the opposition since his 2010 spending review.

Finally, Miliband set out his version of a cap. He made the case for addressing underlying causes of high social security spending rather than tearing away repeatedly at the safety net. Use limited resources on building homes, he said, not housing benefit. Subsidise job creation, he implored, instead of handing out dole money. Imposing budget discipline should not oblige us “to leave our values at the door”.

It was a careful synthesis of fiscal rectitude and conscientious outrage and, with some recalcitrant exceptions, the speech was received with acclaim and relief in the party. Miliband’s team felt vindicated in the approach of not rushing into announcements until the boss had clarified his thinking and chosen a course with which he could be politically and morally satisfied.

Labour MPs are ambivalent about this temperament, admiring or ridiculing it as the “Zen” attitude to opposition. It often leaves them milling around, uncertain what direction the leader is about to take. Miliband pushes his luck, leaving crucial decisions untaken for so long that the party starts to sound restive and discipline looks close to breaking down. Then the leader emerges from his meditations carrying tablets of stone engraved with policy pronouncements.

It is a pattern that speaks of an apprenticeship in Gordon Brown’s Treasury. The two men have entirely different temperaments (MPs from all parties say the current Labour leader is vastly more likeable than his predecessor) but they share the habit of meditating for too long over big strategic questions and then unveiling the answer in densely argued, technical speeches.

 It is often said in Labour circles that there are two Ed Milibands. There is the one whose principled ardour and appreciation of the need for drastic economic and social renewal won him the leadership in the first place. Then there is the ultra-cautious one, who is a creature of machine politics and who has risen to the top of the Westminster establishment by tactical increments. “He wants to be a radical reformer in the mould of Thatcher,” says Patrick Diamond, a former Downing Street adviser who is now senior research fellow at the Policy Network think tank. “On the other hand, he is a pragmatic technician who reached maturity in politics working at the feet of Gordon Brown.”

If Miliband bears the imprint of Brownism, Ed Balls is steeped in it. The shadow chancellor has his own bunker operation that works in collaboration with the leader’s office but not in deference to it. Of all the impediments to the advancement of the “responsible capitalism” agenda, the greatest by far is the refusal by Labour’s most prominent economic policy figure to take it seriously.

Miliband’s strategy in the run-up to 2015 is meant to involve the revelation of an economic model that will tip the balance of power away from big finance and corporate behemoths towards small businesses and ordinary citizens. Yet the shadow chancellor has said nothing on that theme. His most notable intervention recently was an oath of fiscal discipline – in effect pledging to spend no more than the coalition – choreographed with Miliband’s welfare speech to give an impression of shared frugal resolve.

The concern, especially on the left of the party, is that Miliband and Balls will end up fighting an election as the people who agree with Cameron and Osborne about cuts, only three years late.

For Labour’s offer to be qualitatively different, the leadership’s idealism has to be rooted in budgetary realism but transcend it. Balls, for all his undisputed talents as an economist and political operator, doesn’t do visionary idealism. So say his critics. His allies reply that a shadow chancellor cannot be held responsible for a leader’s inability to sell his own vision. Balls loyalists struggle to conceal their disdain for Miliband’s style of wonky presentation.

MPs and activists don’t need focus groups to tell them the leader is not wowing a mass audience. Friends and constituents tell them he comes across as unassuming and awkward. He inspires neither great acrimony nor particular affection. That, say the optimists, means there is capacity for improvement. The more the voters see, the more they will like. Miliband’s allies point out that defying expectations – benefiting from others underestimating him – has been the pattern of his leadership so far.

“Everyone at every stage has asked if Ed can do the next bit,” says the former cabinet minister John Denham, who sometimes advises Miliband. “Can he perform on the national stage? Can he do Prime Minister’s Questions? Can he set the political agenda? Can he win local elections? The answer every time has been ‘yes’. The next step is: can he become a really popular leader in the country? I think he can do it. That’s the step that has got to be made.”

The Conservatives are relying on the pros - pect that Miliband will wilt under the campaign spotlight. Downing Street strategists, recalling their own experience in building the Cameron brand, say there is a very narrow window – a year or two – in which a candidate has enough benefit of the doubt to control public perceptions. After that, he is vulnerable to being typecast as something his enemies want him to be. In Miliband’s case, that thing is a “blancmange in a hurricane” – Michael Gove’s description of a man he finds too wobbly to be entrusted with command in extreme economic conditions.

Some doubts were suspended after Mili - band’s “one nation” speech to Labour’s annual conference in Manchester last October. The confident delivery and optimistic message gave the gathered faithful hope that their leader could indeed mobilise an optimistic spirit of collective national endeavour. But eight months later, few Labour MPs think “one nation” is making any great advances into the public consciousness. There are dismissive comparisons with Cameron’s flimsy “big society” rhetoric.

Miliband’s team rejects the analogy, urging patience as the great strategy unfurls. But Labour feels its patience stretched, not least because the Tories look so eminently beatable. Miliband is not so much a victim of his own successes as a casualty of his enemies’ premature failures. The fractiousness of the coalition and Cameron’s tenuous control over his party have invited early speculation about Miliband’s credentials as a successor – and he doesn’t look ready.

Meanwhile, Ukip is scooping up stray protest votes. Labour’s assumption that the financial crisis heralded a realignment of politics on the left didn’t factor in a midterm populist insurgency on the right.

The government’s mistakes gave Labour hope when they expressed an opportunity. Now the mass of Cameron’s problems has become the scale for measuring Miliband’s weakness whenever he fails to press home the advantage.

The numbers agree that he could become Britain’s next prime minister in 2015. If Labour’s current average opinion-poll lead of about 7 points were replicated in a general election, Ed Miliband would emerge to govern with a majority of roughly 90 seats. Yet no one in the party thinks that, or anything close to it, will happen. Labour is suspended between what it knows is possible and what it feels is likely. Even Miliband’s staunchest supporters fear that the evangelical energy is draining away from the project.

“If Mrs Thatcher taught us anything it was that people find conviction attractive even when they disagree with it,” Hattersley says. “I have no doubt that Ed has that. He just needs to show it. We need a more proselytising approach and I think Ed can do it. But I also think he has to get on with it.”

First ruminate: critics accuse Miliband of procrastinating and mulling too long over strategic decisions. Photograph: Kate Peters/Institute for New Statesman.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 


The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.


On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”


Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.