Ed Miliband fought the election on his own terms – and he lost it on his own terms. When he faced the biggest crisis of his leadership last November, he could have retreated under pressure to the right. Instead, as I wrote at the time, he doubled down on his distinctive social democratic agenda. Labour has now suffered a worse defeat than almost anyone expected – far below the supposed nadir of 2010.
In spite of these losses, Miliband used his resignation speech to reaffirm his absolute faith in his message. “We may have lost the election but the argument of our campaign will not go away,” he said. “The issue of our unequal country will not go away. This is the challenge of our time. The fight goes on. And whoever is our new leader, I know Labour will keep making the case for a country that works for working people once again.” His intellectual confidence has not been dented by defeat. Indeed, he almost sought to bind his successor by suggesting that they would embrace his narrative as their own.
While it is safe to assume that whoever leads Labour will vow to reduce inequality, it is doubtful whether they will approach the issue in the same manner as Miliband. Many in the party had long felt that his talk of a “cost-of-a-living crisis” and of “a country of food banks and bank bonuses” was far too negative to win over voters craving optimism. Others, from the right, believed that Miliband would never win a hearing as long as he was viewed as “anti-business” and Labour was viewed as fiscally reckless. The party did far too little to neutralise both negatives.
In his speech, Miliband urged his party to preserve the unity that was the one of the achievements of his leadership – continuing to “disagree without being disagreeable”. But there are some in Labour who feel that they now need to have the all-out intellectual confrontation that has been ducked over the last five years. Only through heat, the logic runs, will light finally emerge.