Why Ed Miliband may have lost Labour the next election, too

By not staying on as caretaker leader, he has ensured his party plots its course in panic and ignorance

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

You wait ages for a Labour leadership contest, then five come along at once. In the past few days, nominations have closed for the contests to be leader and deputy leader of the UK and Scottish Labour parties respectively as well as on the party’s pick for London mayor. Who wins these races will determine how Labour defines itself in opposition and how quickly it can regain power. Labour is in the dire position of being out of office at UK level, at national level in Scotland and at city level in the capital.

Labour should be taking a long, hard look at itself before deciding what to do next. Instead, it has a leadership contest in which sloganeering seems to be taking precedence over thought. The most incisive speech we’ve heard about Labour’s predicament was the one Tristram Hunt delivered as he announced that he was pulling out of the contest because he didn’t have enough support to get on the ballot paper.

All this could have been avoided had Ed Miliband listened to those who urged him to stay on as a caretaker leader, like Michael Howard after the Tories’ defeat in 2005. Howard took the chance to give all those running in the subsequent leadership contest prominent roles in the shadow cabinet and ensured that the race was long enough to give lesser-known candidates a chance to make their mark. The result was that the Tories picked David Cameron, not the early frontrunner David Davis, and returned to power at the next election.

Miliband’s refusal to stay on, made all the more puzzling by the fact he has returned to speak in the Commons already and is regularly seen around Parliament, has dangerously foreshortened this contest. There are only four candidates on the ballot; one of them is there only because of nominations from those who don’t intend to vote for him; and Labour will have elected its leader before it meets for its first post-defeat party conference. If the Tories had followed this timetable ten years ago, David Davis would have become their leader.

The limitations of this contest are not just Ed Miliband’s fault. Gordon Brown succeeded in removing a generation of Labour talent from politics. Those who threatened his leadership prospects soon found that life in the Westminster kitchen became unbearably hot. So Alan Milburn, James Purnell and John Reid all hung up their aprons. To compound this problem, neither of the two Labour spokesman who have caused the most excitement among the architects of New Labour, the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis and the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, is standing.

These limitations are why so many in the party are intrigued by the possibility of forcing the new leader to submit themselves for re-election after three years. It’s a product not only of despair at the quality of the current field but also a Micawberite hope that someone will have turned up by 2018.

Liz Kendall is the most interesting of the four candidates. She is an unapologetic exponent of the reformist argument that ‘what matters is what works’. But she is painfully inexperienced; she has never even shadowed a secretary of state. There is also concern among some colleagues that while her policy approach might owe much to Tony Blair, her temper is rather too reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s.

Perhaps Kendall’s biggest mistake has been to confront the party with too many hard truths at once. It is worth remembering that in that 2005 Tory leadership race, Cameron did a lot of reassuring — saying he wanted marriage recognised in the tax system and the like — before setting out how his party needed to change to win.

Such problems with the Kendall candidacy have given Yvette Cooper momentum. She now seems the woman best placed to block the current favourite, Andy Burnham. One Blairite told me this week, ‘If you want to stop Andy, you’ve got to back Yvette. She’s the only one who can do it.’

If the Labour leadership race is dispiriting to those on the reformist wing of the party, then the deputy leadership race is downright depressing. The frontrunner at the moment is Unite boss Len McCluskey’s former flatmate Tom Watson, who has the most nominations from MPs. Watson’s previous claims to political fame include his involvement in the coup against Tony Blair and his campaign against the Murdoch press. James Purnell called him ‘a cancer at the heart of the Labour party’. He is a divider, not a uniter. But he may well gain control of the Labour party machine as deputy leader. It’s worth noting that it was Watson’s judgment that led to scores of activists descending on Sheffield Hallam for months in a predictably unsuccessful attempt to defeat Nick Clegg, while 50 minutes up the road Ed Balls’s seat was slipping away.

Perhaps the great devolved centres of power could offer Labour a route back. Next year’s Holyrood elections in Scotland will probably come too soon for any kind of Labour revival. The party should elect the 33-year-old Kezia Dugdale leader only if they are prepared to let her lose an election (or two). The Scottish National Party surge will not recede in the near future.

In London it seemed almost inevitable that, after Boris, City Hall would go red again. But Zac Goldsmith’s entry into the race has changed that. He is a unique Tory. He can be confident he’ll gain both Green and Ukip second preference votes. Polls already indicate that he would end up in a dead heat with Sadiq Khan, the union-backed candidate who ran Ed Miliband’s leadership bid. But Goldsmith is currently trailing Tessa Jowell, the former Olympics minister who helped bring the games to London.

It is not certain that Jowell will win the Labour nomination. She is fighting by Queensberry rules in a contest that is already turning dirty. If she is to win the nomination, her team must wise up to the battle that she is engaged in.

Those who say that Labour will be out of power for a generation are forgetting how long a time in politics five years is. By 2020, the EU referendum and its aftermath could have torn the Tories apart. But the challenge for Labour now is to gets its house in order, so as to turn itself into a credible alternative. So far, there are few signs that the party understands quite how much work needs to be done.


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  • JonBW

    “Those who say that Labour will be out of power for a generation are
    forgetting how long a time in politics five years is. By 2020, the EU
    referendum and its aftermath could have torn the Tories apart.”

    Wishful thinking from a journalist worried he’ll have nothing to write about: it will take Labour a decade to mount a realistic challenge to the Tories because of the scale of the defeat, most particularly in Scotland.

    I haven’t heard any of the candidates even begin to address the collapse of Scottish Labour and I’d say that they need at least half of the Scottish seats to have any chance of a majority.

    And that’s before you consider the potential for boundary changes and the scale of the Tory majority in key English marginals.

    Whoever wins the Labour leadership election will probably never be PM.

    • Barba Rossa

      “The collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland”….there was something akin to revulsion just to look at Miliband, he chose to betray Scotland, and in doing so betrayed the possible Labour voters in the rest of the UK.

      • JonBW

        Labour lost Scotland well before Milliband became leader: the devolution settlement, combined with the fact that Labour’s best Scots politicians chose to seek careers at Westminster rather than Holyrood made what happened in May inevitable.

        • MacGuffin

          But, but, but… Gordon Brown himself stayed at Westminster!

          Oh, I see what you did there.

      • The_greyhound

        How is it wise to vote SNP?

        Eight years in office in Holyrood have shown the nationalists to be incompetent, corrupt and dishonest. They can spend money, but seldom have anything to show for it. Their only capacity is to wreck and divide – Scotland today is more bitterly divided than at any time in living memory.

        Their own ineptitude has ruled out independence, but the increasingly irrational antics of the nationalist minority now make the partition of Scotland a real possiblity.

        • Barba Rossa

          Ha!! a feckin Orangeman…well yes.. you would say that then.

          Here in Fife we have been wise enough to turn 20 000+ Lab majority into 20 000 SNP majority..while you snarl yer Orange protest.

          the SNP is the only party to fight Scotlands corner and we will manage fine without the Orange Order.

          • Chingford Man

            Why are you so full of hatred for your fellow Scots? Do you see the Order as a threat to your deluded scheming?

          • Barba Rossa

            if you find the Orangemen so pleasant do encourage them move to Chingford…

          • Chingford Man

            I hope some day you can confront your prejudice so you can accept people as they are. If tolerance is good enough for those who are LGBT, it’s good enough for Orangemen.

          • Roger Hudson

            Doesn’t Lewes in Sussex still have a lodge?

          • David

            You rather prove the Greyhound’s point. You seem so full of bile and spite. Are you okay? Things not working out for you in life the way you wanted?

          • Roger Hudson

            Reading the comment you are commenting on i have to ask :what has the Orange Order got to do with it? Off thread?

    • Ποια είναι αλήθει

      Interestingly Labour increased their share of the vote in England compared to 2010 and increased their English seat count. The scale of Labour’s defeat is overstated, and the strength of the Conservative victory overrated. Remember only 37% of those that voted, and only 24% of the electorate voted Conservative, and many only did so on the back of SNP scare stories. That’s not to say, I believe Labour will win the next election, just that it is certainly possible, and the future unknown. Much will depend on how the World Economy works out in next five years and affects conditions in UK, which. Is completely outside of control of British Government

      • WhiteVanMan

        Hardly,as 2010 was the 2nd worse ever defeat,and that labour had 3 added bonuses for us ,this time, 1 the Libdem vote would come to us, 2 the Cuts making the Tories unpopular, 3 Ukip splitting the right vote, ,and that excludes that 2015 was a higher turnout.

        • g978

          Exactly – Labour expected the Lib Dems to fall to them exclusively. They didn`t. UKIP pose a threat to Labour, the Conservatives increased their vote whilst having their principle threat on the right quadruple their vote. That is impressive.

      • g978

        I hate this 24% figure being trotted out. DO the same people say only 36% of Greek voted No in the referendum (61% of 60% turnout). No Government every gets 50% of the vote since turnout in never much higher than 80%.

        • smoke me a kipper

          Why hate the Truth? The truth is neutral

  • Barba Rossa

    Fact …Miliband did not want to be Prime Minister, he opted out of doing so when he chose not to work with Scotland’s representatives,

  • scampy

    The Tories are praying for Corbyn or Balls up Cooper.

    • Ron Todd

      I would prefer Burnham the Mid Staffs cover up man.

  • John Carins

    Labour in crisis presents a ripe opportunity to leave the EU. Cameron’s negotiations are going nowhere (Shultz has said that there can be no change to “ever closer political union”) . He needs to to take the proverbial bull by the horns and recommend “out”.

  • huw

    labour has lost the next election for sure, the snp are more likely to get more not less seats next time + the boundry changes will give the tories an extra 12-18 seats

  • thomasaikenhead

    Don’t blame Ed Miliband, blame Gordon Brown?

    It was the unelected, and unelectable, Gordon who spent many years, first as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, time that was a disaster for his party and his country, who is really responsible for the tragedy that is now the Labour Party!

    To think that Gordon had a PhD on the history of the Labour Party in Scotland but failed to recognise that his leadership and management laid the foundations for the collapse of Labour is fascinating.

    • David

      Yes, indeed. Brown was the worst Prime Minister in my memory, and the most toxic Labour leader since, well, anyone. As history is being written, it’s amazing to think he worked against the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister from the word ‘go’. As Andrew Rawnsley’s book showed, he was a slow motion trainwreck and has left a terrible stain on the party that will take decades to wash out.

  • porcelaincheekbones
  • Onsere1985

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