On 23 September 2014, Ed Miliband prepared to take the stage at the Labour party conference in Manchester to deliver the most important speech of his career. But instead of rehearsing the speech he had memorised, he was being forced to concentrate on a new opening section, endorsing the proposal David Cameron had made that morning to join the US bombing of Isis in Iraq.
“Stupidly, none of us had thought the late changes could have an impact on the quality of what he would deliver in the rest of the speech,” one of the advisers most involved in its writing recalled. “My sense is that looking back, it knocked him off course slightly. He started with the Isis passage, and it went over relatively poorly in the hall. He was off his game.”
“What’s worse,” the adviser continued, “for the whole of the speech, he was improvising more than you might imagine. Ideas dropped from earlier drafts – such as a joke about being mistaken for Benedict Cumberbatch – suddenly reappeared. He was not quite sure in his head where he was, so when he got to the bit where the deficit should have been, he just started a different section. I remember immediately thinking ‘shit’, but I thought perhaps he had shuffled it around because I had seen him do that before.”
In fact, Miliband had simply forgotten the brief passage about the deficit – the one addressing the issue that had hung over parliament like an ominous cloud for the previous four years. It was only a hundred words – including a promise to “eliminate the deficit as soon as possible” – but Miliband only realised the error, to his horror, as he walked off the stage.
Some members of his team prayed the omission would not be noticed, though at a donors’ party after the speech, two of Miliband’s closest aides – Stewart Wood, who exerted the greatest intellectual influence on the candidate, and Stan Greenberg, one of Miliband’s American pollsters – were heard joking to one another about the missing passage.
But the Labour digital team, without checking, had within an hour sent the original version of the speech to the media – including the missing paragraphs on the deficit. Miliband’s many critics in the press gratefully seized on the symbolism. The shadow treasury team quietly seethed.
The adviser who had helped to write the speech now admits Miliband’s human lapse reflected a deeper political truth. “Had there been more references in the speech to the deficit, he would not have forgotten it. If we had run it through like a stick of rock it would have been impossible to forget.”
We tried to cheer him up, but even then he was too upset. He just did not want to come out of his room
Miliband was so distraught that he shut himself in his hotel room, where a series of people, including his wife, Justine, joined him and tried to offer some reassurance – pointing out that the omission had not featured prominently in the BBC political editor Nick Robinson’s report on the Six O’Clock News.
But Miliband knew the story of his “forgetting the deficit” would prove devastating. “He was really upset,” the speech writer recalled. “He pushes himself very hard – he was very, very angry with himself even before he knew it was going to be the main story out of the speech. We tried to cheer him up, but even then he was too upset. He did not come to the celebratory party, he just did not want to come out of his room.”
There was particular consternation among Miliband’s team, because some of them had argued that he should not attempt to deliver the speech from memory – as he had done, with great effort, for the two previous years. The tumultuous Scottish referendum campaign had only come to an end five days earlier and the desperate push to save the union had overtaken everything else.
“There was no time to prep for conference,” the speechwriter recalled. “So we were trying to put together the policy offer in these awful conference calls between various offices in Scotland and London. We finally put together an NHS offer, but it had no life in it because it had only been agreed at the last moment.”
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More significantly, the rush from Scotland to the conference meant that the party put very little thought into how to re-engage with defeated independence supporters. “It was an astonishing collective failure,” another of Miliband’s closest advisers said. “We never foresaw how much we would get the blame for the defeat.”
At five minutes to ten o’clock on election night, moments before the exit poll was released, Labour headquarters was preparing to claim power, convinced that against the odds, they could combine with other parties to lock David Cameron out of Downing Street. By sunrise, they knew it had all been a mirage. Labour had won only 30.4% of the vote, and lost 26 seats.
This is the story of how that defeat came about, based on extensive interviews with many of Miliband’s closest advisers. It is a story of decisions deferred, of a senior team divided, and of a losing struggle to make the Labour leader electable. At its heart are the twin forces that would prove to be the party’s undoing: the profound doubts about Labour’s instincts on the economy and the surge of nationalism in Labour’s onetime Scottish heartlands. Once those issues – embodied by Miliband’s memory lapse and his rushed deployment of aides north of the border – were skilfully fused together by the Conservatives in the election campaign, they would prove lethal to Labour. And they would ensure that by 8 May, a matter of hours after he had genuinely believed he was about to become Britain’s prime minister, Ed Miliband was gone.
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Many of Miliband’s advisers acknowledge that there were two sides to the Labour leader. “Meetings were quite discursive, because there were a large number of views in the room,” one senior campaign aide recalled. “He enjoyed that. He used the disagreement as a means to get his own way. It is a very interesting case study in power, in that he would not be described typically as a strong leader, but very consensual. The caricature of him is as weak, but internally he had great control.”
“One of his bigger faults,” the aide continued, “is that the people he valued were the only ones that he could trust to do things. He was unable to delegate responsibility outside a very small circle.”
The team that Miliband had assembled around him consisted of highly intelligent individuals, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts – it was, according to many of those advisers, like a court in which opposing voices cancelled one another out. Greg Beales, the campaign’s director of strategy – and the keeper of the party’s polling – was convinced that, above all, the party needed to address the distrust of Labour’s legacy on the economy and immigration. He insisted that they should confront these issues directly, or else the specific “retail” offers to the electorate that tested well in focus groups, such as the energy price freeze, would fall on deaf ears. By contrast, the more cerebral Stewart Wood, a former politics tutor at Magdalen College Oxford, pressed Miliband to make an ideological break with New Labour, and concentrate the campaign on a promise to make society more equal, through reforms to banking, markets, and post-crash capitalism.
If there is a story of Miliband’s political journey in the last five years, according to the senior campaign aide, it is his gradual shift from Wood to Beales – from Miliband’s more radical instincts to the cautious tactical politics he had learned during his long stint under Gordon Brown at the Treasury.
But long before the internal debate over Labour’s new ideological orientation had been resolved, the Tories had successfully established the deficit as the most important issue of the day – and one for which Miliband’s team never managed to craft a decisive message. “At the start of the parliament, we had an immediate challenge,” one of Miliband’s top advisers said. “The question was whether you confront the Tory spin that Labour had overspent, causing the crash, or whether you concede the point. But we neither confronted nor conceded – we simply tried to move on.”
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In a stream of memos, beginning early in Miliband’s leadership, Tony Blair’s former communications director Alastair Campbell urged Miliband to confront what he described as the Tory lie on the deficit, arguing that it would be fatal if Labour allowed the charge to stick.He explains: “When Miliband was elected leader, he felt uncomfortable defending the Blair-Brown record. He wanted to disassociate himself from the past and talk about the future.” The appointment of the former Times journalist – and close friend of Campbell – Tom Baldwin as media adviser, in December 2010, appeared to signal that Miliband recognised the danger, since Baldwin’s pitch for the job had been centred on the need to confront this very issue. He had proposed a week-long attack on “the great Tory deception” over the deficit, which was to have involved the entire shadow cabinet.
But the planned week-long assault sputtered out after a single signed article by Miliband in the Times, on 6 January 2011, which accused the Tories of deceit, citing “evidence from around the world” to argue that “a global credit crunch caused deficits to rise on every continent”. Even at this point, the shadow cabinet still could not agree on how to tackle the issue.
This strategic paralysis was still in place a fortnight later when Alan Johnson, Labour’s shadow chancellor, announced his resignation on 20 January 2011. Miliband was forced to convene an emergency meeting at “DPR” – as the team called his home on Dartmouth Park Road in north London – to make a snap decision about a replacement. David Miliband had already rejected his brother’s offer of the chancellorship once, and the only remaining options seemed to be Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper. Some expressed reservations about Balls, citing his reputation as a poor team player, and what they felt was a dogmatic stance against spending cuts.
At the meeting, Beales told Miliband, partially in jest, that “if you appoint Balls it is going to be the last decision you are ever going to make”. But the consensus was for Balls – although, as a compromise, Miliband was asked to approach his brother one more time. Sitting on the backbenches, a bruised David said no once again.
In reality, the fears in Miliband’s team about a repeat of the Blair-Brown wars proved unfounded. Miliband and Balls worked together amicably. The difficulty, according to one source who observed the relationship closely, was that they only occasionally saw themselves as partners on a single project. “Too often, the result of their disagreements was inertia,” the source said.
By June 2011, as the UK economy headed for recession, Balls had largely set aside the issue of Labour’s economic legacy and was locked in battle with George Osborne over how to lift the economy out of a deepening slump. “Ed Miliband wanted big structural changes to the way the economy worked,” one of Miliband’s advisers told me, “while Balls wanted to make the case for Keynesian stimulus. It probably took them two years to realise that neither of them was winning the argument against the other, let alone with voters.”
“Those first few years of parliament were disastrous for us in terms of economic credibility,” another of Miliband’s top advisers said. “Balls may have been right, but he was trying to win an economic argument for a fiscal stimulus from opposition, and that is hard. Instead of offering reassurance on the deficit, we were offering extra borrowing. Some of us kept going back to the issue of whether Labour had overspent – we went round and round, trying to find a formula.”
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The first serious attempt to change course came in May 2014, after Labour’s poor performance in the European parliamentary elections. The previous year, Miliband had appointed the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, as chair of general election strategy, and Spencer Livermore as his general election campaign director. In one sense, Livermore was a surprising appointment: he had been a special adviser to Brown from 1997 to 2008, and was seen as closely associated with New Labour, from which Miliband had tried to distance himself. But Miliband badly needed someone with experience, and Livermore was a veteran of three Labour campaigns.
On his appointment, Miliband told Livermore explicitly that he did not intend to reshape his political project – but Livermore privately hoped that his new role signalled a willingness by Miliband to change course and “pick up the pace” of the campaign’s efforts to appeal to voters.
Still, the early signs about Miliband’s electoral instincts were not good. In the weeks before the European elections that May, Miliband’s pitch to the public remained mostly incoherent. On 15 May, a week before the vote, Miliband met with David Axelrod – Barack Obama’s chief campaign adviser, who had signed on as a consultant to the Labour campaign for an astronomical fee – at Corrigan’s, an upscale Mayfair restaurant. During the meal, Beales was fielding calls from Miliband, who was still asking him to think of a slogan for the remaining week of the European election campaign; Axelrod was appalled by the low quality of the ideas being discussed, which he derisively characterised as “Vote Labour and win a microwave”. Unless Miliband could present the public with a bigger and more inspiring message, Axelrod told him, it would be impossible to regain the support of the white working-class voters who were deserting the Labour party.
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In the wake of the European elections – in which Ukip beat Labour to win the most seats – Livermore went through the results with Patrick Heneghan, the Labour director of field operations.Their most alarming discovery was that Labour were underperforming in key marginal seats.
If Labour were going to win the 2015 election, something needed to change – and time was running out. Livermore and Alexander had instituted a “quarterly look-ahead” meeting, at which grand strategic matters were discussed among a senior group that included Greg Beales, Tom Baldwin, Stewart Wood, Torsten Bell, the head of strategy, and Marc Stears, a close friend of Miliband’s from university who worked as a speech writer. It was decided that the next of these meetings – on 8 June 2014 – had to produce a radical turning point in Miliband’s leadership. Wood was charged with persuading Miliband to agree that a change was overdue.
A memo was drawn up by Baldwin, acknowledging that the campaign was in trouble. It set out a series of suggestions – as such memos often do – for Miliband. It was time for him to rebrand himself as a man capable of telling hard truths about the difficult issues facing post-crash Britain, such as benefits and devolution. The memo argued that Miliband should set out new fiscal rules for the party, taking Labour closer to the deficit-cutting timetable set out by the Tories, and going farther than Balls had gone in his own announcement, in January 2014, that Labour would eliminate the deficit in the next parliament. It was also proposed that Miliband would spend two days each week outside the Westminster bubble, speaking to voters all over the country, and suggested he approach prime minister’s questions in a less confrontational manner. (Another passage in the memo, suggesting a shadow cabinet reshuffle, was removed by Miliband’s chief of staff, Tim Livsey, who was furious at the suggestion.)
By the time of the meeting on 8 June, the atmosphere was toxic. Miliband had already become suspicious that his strategic team were determined to force him in a new direction; now he had been tipped off, in advance of the meeting, that a New Labour coup was under way. He was particularly distressed that Wood and Stears, his two closest ideological allies and friends, appeared to be backing the change in course. At the meeting, Miliband was suspicious and defensive, sticking to his inequality agenda. “There was no explosion, but the tension was horrible,” one attendee said. “You could cut the air with a knife, and everyone wanted to get out. It was very unpleasant.” In the days that followed, there were angry phone calls and warnings about loyalty – and Miliband did not speak to Livermore, the perceived ringleader, for a fortnight.
Most of the plans discussed at the meeting were implemented only halfheartedly. At the end of July, Miliband made a speech on leadership in which he addressed his image problem. “If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy,” he said. But as was typical of Miliband’s campaign, a single speech was deemed sufficient for a box to be ticked.
The aim of the party conference in September was to present a six-point plan for the bright future into which Miliband would lead the country. Yet the attempt to humanise some rather abstract messages by telling stories about ordinary people – such as “Gareth”, whom Miliband had met while walking in Hampstead Heath – fell horribly flat.
“We thought part of our problem was that we were very downbeat and depressing – always telling people what’s wrong with the country,” one senior adviser told me. “The idea was to have some optimism, energy and light and raise people’s sights beyond the parliament. It was not a bad idea, but it was badly executed. It ended up as weird statistical targets, not a new Jerusalem.”
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Shortly after the 2014 conference, private polling conducted by James Morris and Stan Greenberg showed Labour doing slightly – but not dramatically – worse than published polls suggested. By the turn of the year, the Tories had a narrow overall lead, while Labour still had a clear edge in key English battleground seats.
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