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.