21st December, 2015
Labour’s Miliband Problem
As winter turns to deeper winter, Labour are done. A party pining for the Soviet fjords. What is left to us is to understand how we got here.
The answer, surprisingly, is not Corbyn.
Labour’s leader, the unions and the hard left are the mechanisms, but not the causes of Labour’s distress. This ship was already headed toward the rocks.
Our command centre was empty when Labour’s odd captain took charge of the bridge.
Who left it empty?
For the good, and for the future of Labour, it is not helpful that Miliband be rehabilitated. Let us be clear. As leader, and as custodian of Labour, he failed.
In the only true test of a political leader — to leave the party stronger than he found it — he failed.
Perhaps the greatest sign of our weakness after thirteen years in power was this: that we were left in a place where Miliband didn’t just have the chance to fail, but looked like Labour’s best choice to do so.
After that, it’s on him.
No excuses. Contrary to public opinion, Miliband did not inherit a broken party. He inherited a party that was tired, fractious with exhaustion, but for a party at the end of thirteen years of government, in surprisingly good shape. It is not inconsequential that even after Iraq, the Tories couldn’t beat us.
And sadly, no defence. Labour were not going to win the 2015 election, there was no realpolitik to justify short-term choices. Politics is cyclical, Labour were tired, voters are fair-minded to the point of agony. You cannot tell people who remember giving Cameron a chance so short a time as five years ago that they were wrong. It smacks of demanding contrition.
Selected, Miliband had one job.
Don’t fuck it up, Ed.
Fight hard, shape the party, repair the damage of thirteen years, hold to account, appoint good people and listen to better. Lose with grace, and by inches. Leave the party strong for someone stronger, and for the chance to repair the damage of Tory rule — in 2020.
The problem with Ed? He actually thought he’d win and appointed people just like him — people equally uncomfortable with the Nottinghams and the Rotherhams of us — to tell him so.
And they set about telling us how clever he was and that nothing else mattered. The third and fourth rules of politics: you can’t fool the people; the leader is nine-tenths of the party.
Miliband, even had he stood in 2020, would have been unelectable. As a caretaker leader working toward 2020, he was frankly poor. Those of us who tried and failed to sell Labour on the doorstep understood that, and we saw it every day — in the leader ratings.
That’s the thing about 2015. The pollsters got it right, they just pointed us to the wrong indicator. As in every election since 1979, it wasn’t voting intentions but perceptions of the leader that said more about where the seats would fall.
The leader matters.
Labour should have known this. We did know this. Everywhere but in headquarters, we knew Miliband couldn’t win.
We got it.
At headquarters? Didn’t get it.
Instead we bet the farm, threw everything at a win, and still we lost. Having raised expectations high, we opened the door to Corbyn, and the certainty that can be taken for principle.
Let’s talk, for example, about Syria.
There is no room for doubt. In 2013 and afterwards, Syria’s President Assad used chemical weapons on his people in defiance of all international law. Thousands died as a result — and not just at Ghouta but in chemical attacks on civilians across country.
We’re told Cameron was justified in believing that Labour’s support for action against Assad would be delivered. It wasn’t.
Miliband changed his mind.
We will never know the cost of that popular, weak decision. What we do know is that 250,000 people have died in Syria — most of them since 2013, most of them at Assad’s hands.
But we do know that we lost the principle. Having walked away, the international community can never again say that use of chemical weapons against civilians is a red line.
Is it any wonder than Corbyn won? His principles are strange, and hardly Labour, but they are honestly and strongly held. Against emptiness of principle, moral certainty — however misguided — starts to look pretty good.
That emptiness showed to the last, and the selection of Labour’s next leader.
There was nothing wrong with opening up voting on the leadership. We priced it wrong, but the idea had validity, as open primaries do.
What was wrong was for Miliband to crack the membership open and then to leave the bridge untenanted. If the battle is to be the battle of ideas — then fine, make it that, then fight.
What ex-leader ever put down their leadership without trying to work for the continuance of their ideas?
Only someone who, in the end, had too many of them. That’s the contrast between ideas and principle. In the end, with principle, you cannot have others.
Corbyn came from somewhere. As we move past a hundred days of Corbyn, Ed Miliband must hold his share of responsibility. And we must hold ours — all of us who saw the emptiness and failed to challenge.
Those of us who filed dutifully off the bridge and tossed Corbyn the keys as we went. We are culpable too.
We all lost Labour.
By Jenny Foreigner