Culpable, but not alone. Photo:Getty
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Where did it go wrong for Ed Miliband?

Ed cannot escape responsibility for his defeat but neither can the Labour Party as a whole.

So Ed Miliband has joined the roster of Labour leaders never to have become Prime Minister, and already plenty of people have been more than happy to tell anyone who’ll listen that they always knew he was a loser. 

Many of those people have defaulted straight to the idea that Labour picked ‘the wrong Miliband’ in the first place.  This is counterfactual nonsense.  Out of a field seemingly dominated by fortysomething Oxbridge graduates who looked to most voters like they’d never done a proper day’s work outside politics in their lives, the party (surprise, surprise) elected the Miliband who’d taken the trouble to work out how best to win over those doing the picking – the Miliband who’d bothered to build good working relationships with the unions and to chat to his parliamentary colleagues regardless of their rank.  The latter, along with the fact that ‘Team Ed’ ruthlessly framed the contest as one between their ‘change-candidate’ and an opponent all-too-easily cast as a Blairite throwback, proved vital when that contest came down to a handful of MPs’ second preferences.

Ed’s critics also risk forgetting three more, equally sobering truths.  First, he took over after Labour had gone down to a defeat every bit as bad (at least outside Scotland) as the one it suffered last week: the chances of turning that around in one term were always tiny.  Second, the difficulties faced by Labour in appealing to a more fragmented electorate, much of which is as concerned by immigration as it is about the economy and public services, and important parts of which do not feel sufficiently inspired to actually vote (assuming they are registered at all), are shared by social democrats across Europe.  Third, Ed was facing political opponents who are past masters (and much better than their Labour counterparts) at using office to alter the terms of political debate and who, at least when it came to personalised attacks, were prepared to stoop lower than they have ever stooped before in order to win.

And yet, as Ed was honest enough to admit in his resignation speech on the morning after the night before, he cannot escape a large measure of responsibility for the failure of his five-year mission.

Leaving aside his failure to see Scotland coming, Ed’s biggest mistake, after winning the leadership by appealing not just to those who wanted to move on from New Labour  but to those who regarded it as some sort of neo-liberal/colonialist aberration, was failing to head immediately and noisily for the centre-ground. Inasmuch as it happened – and on immigration, on welfare, and (by the end) on tax and spend, it did happen – it came about too late, and too stealthily, to make much difference.

True, one could argue that there was some method in this madness – a superficial logic in delaying in order to lock in left-wing voters disgusted with Nick Clegg’s deal with David Cameron before turning to make a play for those who’d voted Tory.  It was also possible to believe (just) that the initial left-populist pitch might appeal to a bunch of people – mainly working people (and how many times did we hear that term during the election campaign?) – who’d become detached from Labour since 1997 and, like many younger ‘voters’, dropped out of politics altogether.  Not straying too far or too early outside the social democratic comfort-zone helped preserved party unity – no small thing in an organisation that traditionally descended into electorally suicidal civil war after a big defeat.

But the opportunity cost turned out to be massive.  Segmenting the electoral market may have seemed sensible, but it risked blotting out the basic truth that any party hoping to win elections has to win over a more nebulous, but ultimately far bigger bunch of voters –the archetypal residents of middle England who simply want to get on in life, who like a bit of leadership, and who value public services but worry about others ripping them off.

Virtually nothing Ed did during his leadership was counter-intuitive and therefore capable of cutting through to these voters in a way that might have led them to re-evaluate either him or his party.  In particular, waiting far too long before publicly committing his party to fiscal consolidation – and failing once he’d done so to adopt measures that might have made a few eyes water and therefore commanded attention and respect (cancelling HS2 and going back on his absurd early commitment to reduce tuition fees are only the most obvious examples) – meant Ed was simply unable ever to persuade people that he really meant it.  Refusing to admit either that Labour had overspent in government or else defend its record against all-comers only made things worse.

Yet just as Ed cannot escape responsibility for his defeat, neither can the Labour Party as a whole.  Ed put himself up for election but it didn’t have to choose him.  And, having chosen him, it didn’t have to stick with him when it became patently obvious that the public (rightly or wrongly) didn’t think he was up to the job – something that could all-too-easily happen this time, too, if it once again goes for a leader with a gilded glide path from Oxbridge to Labour’s frontbench via a think tank and/or a job as a special adviser.

Since it now looks likely that whoever emerges may well come from such a background, then Labour had better make damn sure that it’s the candidatet best able both to connect with the public and to tell the party what it needs (as opposed to what it wants) to hear.  And if it gets it wrong first time, it should have the courage this time to dump them if they turn out to be a dud.  If not, the party will have nobody to blame but itself if loses every bit as badly in five years’ time as it did last week.

Tim Bale teaches Politics at Queen Mary University of London and is the author of Five Year Mission: the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.