Ed Miliband's sulk led to Labour's downfall

The former Labour leader might go down as the most catastrophic in the party's history

September 14, 2015
Ed Miliband left his party in a mess after the disastrous general election © Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Ed Miliband left his party in a mess after the disastrous general election © Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

At least Michael Foot had a literary reputation to fall back on when his leadership came to the end which had seemed, like death itself, inevitable from its beginning. Quite what Jeremy Corbyn will do when his unlikely leadership meets its likely end is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he will return to the vainglorious protesting that has been his stock-in-trade for 30 years, to no obvious effect, past, present or future.

It is worth returning to Mr Foot’s first great success as a guide to the process that led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming the leader of the Labour party. In 1940, under the collective pseudonym Cato, Mr Foot was, along with the Liberal Frank Owen and the Conservative Peter Howard, the author of Guilty Men, a polemical attack on 15 named appeasers of “Hitler’s blatant bullying”.  The book had a profoundly deleterious effect on the reputations of Stanley Baldwin and, in particular, Neville Chamberlain.  It traced the policy errors and named the guilty men.

If Michael Foot were here to conduct the same exercise on the admittedly less historic question of how the Labour party managed to decline to the point that it was led by a man cosmically ill-equipped for the task, it would be quite a job. Mr Corbyn himself is not among them. He stood reluctantly for a job he did not want and knows he will not be good at. His candidacy inspired people to join the Labour party and vote for him. That is all permissible in a democracy and nobody whose support went elsewhere, as mine did, can complain about it. Though the process was not exactly pristine, there is nothing illegitimate about the victory won by Mr Corbyn. For the guilt we have to look elsewhere.

Going backwards in time from the present a large part of the guilt has to be attached to Ed Miliband. It was Mr Miliband who drafted the rules under which new members have flooded the Labour party at £3 a time, with no qualification period, to vote for an unelectable leader. It was Mr Miliband who tried to win power from a position somewhat to the Left of where Tony Blair won power. That licensed the Left in the party and ensured that the character of the membership changed between 2010 and 2015. The upshot of Mr Miliband’s tenure and then his defeat is that Labour became a different party, one that was much more left-wing than it used to be, one that saw Mr Corbyn as an unlikely saviour. Mr Miliband also deserves opprobrium for the way he departed the leadership in the immediate aftermath of the general election. He should have stayed on and overseen a more orderly process. Indulgently, he sulked off.

Before him, there has to be some blame attached to the man rewarded by winning the Deputy Leadership, Tom Watson. It was Mr Watson’s chicanery in Falkirk that caused the crisis that led to the change in the leadership rules. It is thanks to Mr Watson’s influence that the Parliamentary Labour Party is as weak as it has been in its recent history. And Mr Watson had a walk-on part in ensuring that Gordon Brown became prime minister, the beginning of a period of intellectual stagnation in the party.

It is the mark of what a peculiar party Labour has become, what a party sentimentally connected to losing it has become, that the only man ever mentioned as guilty is its most successful prime minister, Tony Blair. Mr Blair himself can hardly be said to have husbanded his legacy well. He left no successors and many of his former apostles have left politics. The Blairities did not organise well and they did not stand and fight. The main burden of the guilt, though, lies elsewhere. In particular, Ed Miliband ought to admit to his role in Labour’s downfall. His silence does him no credit. To have led a party, in a winnable election, to just 30 per cent of the vote and then left it in this kind of mess means he may yet go down as perhaps the most catastrophic Labour leader in its history.