The undoing of Ed Miliband – and how Labour lost the election
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 donor’s 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
* * *
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.
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.”
* * *
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.
Miliband remained confident. “It is an overstatement to say he did not think the conference mattered at all, but the blunt way of putting it is that, in his head, he thought he was in a stronger position than the rest of us probably thought,” said one close adviser. “The number crunchers were telling him that there was good evidence that the Tories’ economic recovery was only going to work for a few people rather than for everyone – and that in an election about the cost of living, he would always have the upper hand.”
In early spring, as the election neared, Miliband’s media performances became increasingly confident. On 26 March, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman, Miliband delivered the memorable line: “Am I tough enough? Hell yes, I’m tough enough.” Although, as one of his closest advisers later admitted: “It’s fair to say that if anyone had suggested he was about say ‘Hell yes’ in the interview, I would have run across the room to stop him.”
As anticipated, the Conservatives began the “short” campaign with attacks on Miliband’s leadership and Labour borrowing, but Miliband’s team were buoyed by the Tories’ failure to gain traction. “We had an astonishingly good first two weeks of the campaign,” said one close adviser. On 1 April, the Telegraph dedicated its front page to a letter, signed by 100 business leaders, which claimed that a Labour government would “threaten jobs and deter investment”. “We thought, ‘Shit, it is going to be like this over and over,’” the adviser said. “We thought that we were not going to be able to withstand this level of hard pounding.”
But, to the team’s surprise, the letter did not seem to cause as much damage as they had feared. “Polls are probably a fairly worthless tool for evaluating the campaign now, but we looked at the polls and we thought: ‘This is not working for them.’ We thought it was perhaps because business has less credibility now, or such attacks were priced in. The Tories clearly panicked and they did not hold their shape.”
With Labour apparently gaining momentum, Miliband’s team prepared to unveil one of its big pre-election announcements, its pledge to scrap the loophole that allowed “non-domiciled” residents of the UK to pay no tax on foreign income. Beales had first proposed the idea in an internal memo two years earlier, but Miliband decided to hold it back until 8 April, a month before election day – despite his team’s terror that Osborne might outflank Labour by unveiling the same policy in his final budget in April.
Labour believed they could dominate two full days of the campaign with the non-dom proposal, but the Conservative campaign director, Lynton Crosby, countered with a trademark “dead cat” strategy – a tactic best summarised by Boris Johnson as follows: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
This time, the dead cat was supplied by the defence secretary Michael Fallon. The day after Labour’s non-dom announcement, Fallon launched a deliberately excessive attack on Miliband, suggesting he would betray the country by surrendering the Trident nuclear deterrent in order to reach a deal with the Scottish National party: “Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.” Miliband’s team seethed at the tactic, though several confessed a lingering admiration for its effectiveness.
Labour’s focus groups were still finding that Tory attacks on Miliband’s leadership had not had the intended effect. But in mid-April, the Conservatives finally found a charge that stuck: the threat of the SNP. With the polls unanimously pointing to a hung parliament, the SNP provided a more vivid way to play on fears about Miliband’s leadership and Labour’s economic record. “If the polls had reflected reality, it would have been a totally different campaign,” one of Miliband’s close advisers said. “The agenda would have been about a second Tory term” – and what that might mean for the NHS, Europe, tax credits and Scotland. Instead, it turned into a referendum on the risks of a minority Labour government. This had long been Douglas Alexander’s worst fear.
Miliband’s team admitted that they were slow to realise the danger. One close adviser admitted that he was initially perplexed as to why posters were appearing all over English towns that depicted Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond. “They stumbled on this SNP thing. We did not realise how much impact it would have, and perhaps they did not realise how much,” the close adviser said. “It was going to persuade 2.5% of the [electorate previously allied to Ukip] to go back into the Tory fold. It made us the risk.”
Miliband had first ruled out a coalition with the SNP on 16 March, but it was not until 26 April that he also ruled out a confidence and supply agreement between the two parties. Even then, the question refused to go away. Shadow ministers were being asked whether there would be implicit understandings between the two parties, or whether they would even speak to SNP MPs in the corridors of Westminster. The party’s focus groups also showed that voters did not believe Miliband’s denials, since they did not think he would ever spurn the chance to be prime minister.
Fixation with the aftermath of the election soon began to drown out everything else. Labour’s announcements on key issues, such as the NHS, were falling flat. “We were getting inside-page leads and number three or four on the broadcasts,” one adviser said.
Ed Balls was particularly frustrated that none of his attacks on Tory cuts were gaining traction. “We tried really hard to change the subject, but the SNP just led the news day in and day out,” said a shadow treasury adviser. “If it was not David Cameron or George Osborne saying it, there was Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond or Nick Clegg – all using the same lines. There was no doubt in our mind that the party of the union and the party of separation were deliberately echoing each other’s lines.”
Labour was so desperate that on 22 April, Lucy Powell, the campaign chair, wrote to the BBC’s director of news, James Harding, to complain about the broadcaster’s coverage. In an email obtained by the Guardian, she alleged:
“Your bulletins and output have become disproportionately focused on the SNP and Tory claims that Labour would enter into a deal which would damage the rest of the UK … We strongly object not only to the scale of your coverage but also the apparent abandonment of any basic news values, with so much reporting now becoming extremely repetitive.
“The BBC’s relentless focus on Scotland is potentially of huge political benefit not only to the SNP but also to the Conservative party. Indeed, it is becoming apparent that this has become the main Tory message in this election and you have regularly shown images from their posters and advertising designed to reinforce this attack. But the BBC has a responsibility not only to reflect what the Conservatives are saying but also to reflect on it.
“For instance, if the BBC has ever asked David Cameron and his colleagues why they are spending most of the energy talking up the SNP, I have missed it … The BBC includes growing amounts of commentary in its news bulletins. But you have barely ever reflected our view – and that of many commentators from across the political spectrum – that the Conservatives want the SNP to win seats from Labour in Scotland because that represents their best chance of remaining in Downing Street.”
* * *
Ahead of a major foreign policy speech at Chatham House thinktank in London on 24 April, the tension in the team over how to respond to the SNP issue came to a head. Douglas Alexander wanted Miliband to use the speech to confront Cameron over the SNP. Others saw the occasion as an opportunity to condemn the war in Iraq and reiterate the break with New Labour. By one account, Alexander was furious, declaring that “the party had to stop fighting the 2010 election and start fighting the 2015 election”.
Alastair Campbell – who was increasingly involved in the final weeks of the campaign, even attending meetings with Miliband’s inner circle – wrote a punchy “one nation” speech for Chatham House. “Taking Britain to the edge of Europe and firing the flames of Scottish Nationalism, as Cameron did the morning after the referendum, are desperate acts of survival,” the speech was to have said. “He is a man that cares more about a few more years in power than a few hundred years of a union that has served our country and served the world so well.”
Alexander thought it would work. Others feared it would simply provide another day of media headlines about the SNP. But Baldwin thought it was essential to tackle the issue. “The strategic justification was obvious,” he said. “We had to lance the boil. Walking down Whitehall naked assaulting random passersby would have been better than having another day on whether we would do a deal with the SNP. It was murdering us. We knew it was murdering us because we could get another story up. But we blinked and chose not to do it.”
Another aide explained why the Campbell speech was axed: “The rival view was that our vulnerability on English nationalism was really very severe and anything that sounded like we were defending the Scots would be music to the Tories’ ears, and just make the problem worse. So the two arguments cancelled each other out.”
On 30 April, Miliband went even further in attempting to distance Labour from the SNP. On BBC Question Time that evening, he stated that if a deal with the SNP was what stood between him and Downing Street, “then so be it. I’m not going to give in to SNP demands – whether that is on Trident or on the deficit.” But by then it was surely too late.
The Question Time debate also ensnared Miliband on Labour’s greatest long-term weakness – how it would handle the deficit. Beales had prepped him for a likely question on whether the previous Labour government had spent too much, with one of Harriet Harman’s aides playing the role of a voter furious with Labour about spending. The prepared answer, broadly, was: “I don’t think every penny was well spent. I can give you plenty of examples where the last Labour government did not spend money well and, as someone who believes that spending on health and education can change lives, it is incumbent on me to make sure that every pound is well spent. But if you are asking me, ‘Did that spending actually cause the crash?’, the answer is ‘No.’ The answer lies in failure to regulate the banks.”
Instead, when an audience member asked him: “Do you accept that when Labour was last in power, it overspent?”, Miliband began his answer, “No, I don’t,” to gasps from members of the audience. The next day, Miliband was ripped apart in the media, which added to the sense that his campaign was losing its discipline.
The next media setback came three days later, on the final weekend before the election. That Sunday, in a car park in Hastings, Miliband unveiled an 8ft 6in slab of limestone, into which had been carved Labour’s six election pledges. The mockery was so intense that the location of the “Ed Stone” became the subject of frenzied media speculation after the election. “The only reason it got through 10 planning meetings was because we were all distracted, looking for a way to punch through on the SNP,” one adviser said.
(The stone’s demolition, in the event of a Labour loss, had been agreed at the time it was commissioned. After the election, the party drew up two plans for its disposal: one was simply to smash the stone up and throw the rubble onto a scrap heap. The second was to break it up and sell chunks, like the Berlin Wall, to party members as a fundraising effort. The first attempts to destroy the stone had to be postponed when the media tracked its location to a south London warehouse. There are claims it has been destroyed, but even Miliband’s close advisers cannot confirm its fate.)
Still, as polling day approached, Lord Falconer, the Labour peer charged by Miliband with preparing the party for the transition to government, was working on three possible electoral outcomes – all three involving a hung parliament. The most pessimistic had Labour with around 260 seats, making it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to reject a second coalition with the Tories. The other two envisioned Miliband as prime minister: one had the Tories on 270 to 285, unable to form a government; the other had Labour with slightly more votes than the Tories, but with slightly fewer, or the same, number of seats.
Planning for post-polling-day manoeuvring had been handed to four people: Lord Falconer, Lord Adonis, Miliband’s chief of staff Tim Livsey and Alastair Campbell. The key issue they had to address was the point at which Labour fell so far behind the Tories that Labour would be unable to form a credible minority government. Falconer’s group calculated that if the Tories won more than 290 seats, things would become difficult for Labour.
As a result, Falconer was keen to secure a deal with the Lib Dems, which would, he thought, give Labour greater moral legitimacy by providing an extra 25 to 30 seats. Such a coalition would have well over 40% of the popular vote. Falconer undertook highly detailed planning on the transition to power, including proposed concessions to the Lib Dems and bills to be introduced in the first Queen’s speech.
On 7 May, hours before the polls closed, Falconer started briefing political editors on how Labour could appeal to the Cabinet Manual to force Cameron from office.
* * *
At 9.55pm on election night, in Labour party headquarters at Brewers Green in Westminster, the party felt that it had charted a clear, if perilous, path to power. The battle that night would be whether the Liberal Democrats would choose to partner with Labour or the Conservatives.
Then 10 o’clock struck. “There were two TV screens – one on Sky, one on the BBC,” a senior campaign aide said. The first words came in, announcing that the exit poll had found the Tories would be the largest party. “Yep, I was expecting that. Anything else would be a surprise,” the aide recalled thinking at the time. “Then the seats came up. Total silence. The shock was just awful. That exit poll will be seared in my brain for ever.” Bell and Livermore stared at each other in disbelief, as the whole room put their hands to their mouths in shock.
Harriet Harman was waiting outside Millbank TV studios to give her initial reaction. None of the scripts she had been given anticipated this disaster. Miliband’s senior advisers huddled for the next hour, trying to decipher the stated results.
“For the exit poll seat projections to be right, Labour had to be wiped out in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats would have to be wiped out in their Tory marginals and we would have to done really badly in the English marginals,” the campaign aide recalled. “We thought we might hold seven to 10 seats in Scotland, we had no intelligence on the Tory-Lib Dem marginals and throughout the day we had good reports in the English marginals. We thought that surely one of these three must be wrong. It was a form of collective denial.”
One hundred and seventy miles away, Miliband was sitting on a sofa in Doncaster with his wife Justine Thornton, Greg Beales and Stewart Wood. He quickly decided that he would not say anything; in panicked phone calls between Doncaster and Labour headquarters, his advisers tried to determine whether the exit poll could be correct. “There was never a sense of arrogance,” an adviser who was in the room said. “There was just a sense that this is bad – is there any way it could be wrong?”
Miliband had, with his speechwriters, prepared two responses, each different in tone: one if Labour was confident that the Tories had lost, and the other for the possibility of a Conservative – Liberal Democrat – DUP coalition. Neither was needed. Instead, as the real results confirmed the exit poll, the discussion turned to the question of Miliband’s resignation, and whether he should stay on in a caretaker role, as Michael Howard had after the Tory defeat in 2005. Beales argued that it would be more dignified to quit immediately. The party would be unable to have an honest debate about what had gone wrong if he remained. Miliband agreed.
When Miliband arrived at Labour headquarters the next morning, Falconer and Harman once again suggested that Miliband might take up a caretaker role. But his wife insisted that it was not the right decision – he should not have to be repeatedly mocked by Tory MPs at prime minister’s questions, she argued.
Miliband’s aides say that, looking back, he blames the Labour defeat on the SNP, and the failure of the campaign to inspire hope among certain key voting blocs – known, in the argot of pollsters, as Mosaic groups G and H: middle-class families with small children, and young couples trying to settle down. There were other problems, of course: the highly touted but ultimately ineffective £15m ground campaign; Labour’s difficulty in attracting elderly voters; the party’s wariness to discuss identity or Englishness.
But one failure stands out above all. Many Labour figures remain puzzled, and frustrated, by Miliband’s refusal to do more to defend the last Labour government’s economic record. Campbell said that he assumed Miliband was reluctant to do so because he had won the leadership election on the promise of a break with the past. Miliband clearly wanted the election to be about the future – and his vision of a new and more equal Britain. But Labour’s legacy played a role far larger than anyone had expected.
Miliband’s closest advisers are aware of how quickly, and dramatically, his own legacy will now be discarded. “Just as it would have been foolish to trash everything about New Labour, it would be similarly foolish to throw away what was good about Ed’s leadership,” Tom Baldwin said. “At its best, it faced up to the big challenge of progressive politics in the 21st century, which is how to achieve the goals of social justice in an era when we can’t spend. Even Tony Blair said Ed had been right to put inequality back on the agenda. Ed’s leadership struggled with the tension between building a new offer of change while also trying not to define ourselves entirely against the preceding three terms of Labour government, in which he played a considerable part. This was a tough puzzle and, despite all our efforts, one we never really solved.”
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