Ed Miliband was writing his victory speech on election night when the nation’s broadcasters announced the exit poll. He remained convinced — as he had been all along — that he was destined for No.10. In his defence, most people in Westminster thought the same. But within his ranks, a rebellion had already broken out. At 2 p.m. that afternoon, a member of his shadow cabinet had resigned — fearing not defeat, but the debacle that would follow Miliband’s success.
‘I was being briefed by Ed’s team about their post-election plans,’ the shadow minister told me. ‘It was nuts. They were explaining how there would be “no concessions”, no “tacking towards the centre”, nothing. The way the campaign had been run, the way his operation had been run, that would be the template for government. The whole Zen Labour thing. In the end, I lost it. I said to them, “Well, if that’s the way you’re going to do things, here’s where I get off’’.’
True to his word, Miliband stayed in his Zen-like state to the end. As one insider put it: ‘When he was working on his victory speech with Greg Beales [his speech writer] the exit poll was announced. They stopped, and someone came in and said, “Don’t worry, that poll’s wrong.” So they carried on writing.’
This is a tale of Labour’s downfall: the inside story of the party’s most catastrophic election campaign since the war. It’s a story of chaos, dysfunction and hubris.
Miliband is reputed to be a decent and approachable man. Nonetheless, fear and loathing were permanent residents in his inner circle. ‘I’ve never worked in a place with a more poisonous atmosphere,’ one aide told me. But that was a positively collegiate view compared to some of those expressed in the days after the defeat. ‘I want to gut them. I want to gut them all,’ a shadow cabinet aide told me, in reference to ‘colleagues’ in Team Miliband. His view is not an isolated one.
Much of the anger of Labour MPs, aides and officials is being channelled towards one question: how come no one saw defeat coming? Why didn’t anyone senior in the party’s campaign team spot the giant iceberg looming ahead?
The Conservatives spotted it. Perhaps not the full scale of their impending triumph, but they were certain (see Sebastian Payne’s article) that they were heading for victory. At about 10 a.m. on polling day morning, I phoned one of David Cameron’s senior advisers. He was the most relaxed I’d heard him throughout the entire campaign.
‘We’re pretty confident we’ve done enough,’ he said, adding that the estimate made at the weekend of 298 Tory seats had been raised to 302. I asked about the opinion polls, all of which showed a drift back to Labour. He laughed and said: ‘Wait until tomorrow morning. The polling companies are going to be in a lot of trouble’. So it was to prove.
A couple of hours later, I got a call from a Labour organiser in a marginal seat. ‘Are the Tories panicking yet?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Should they be?’
‘Yep. I’ve just had a call from Brewer’s Green [Labour HQ]. They’re certain they’re going to win Finchley and Golders Green.’ Taking Finchley — Margaret Thatcher’s old seat — would indeed have been a triumph. But the Tories won it with a crushing majority of nearly 5,700.
Labour’s failure to realise the true state of the ‘ground war’ was crippling. In the last days of a campaign, it is vital for the parties to have an accurate picture of what is happening in constituencies, so they can allocate workers and other important resources.
It used to work perfectly: in the old days, the Labour spin doctor Damian McBride used to win favours with journalists by sharing the party’s confidential internal polling, which was always spot on. This time, it failed. Miliband’s troops were effectively fighting blind. Blame for this abject failure of basic intelligence gathering has been viciously apportioned to several areas. Some are quick to point the finger at Labour HQ. ‘It wasn’t fit for purpose from day one,’ a shadow cabinet adviser told me. ‘The first day we turned up, we were told there weren’t enough workstations and some of us would have to spend the campaign working from home. Then someone discovered there was one mid-level official who still had a company car because he’d been with the party since the 1970s and that was still written into his contract.’
One MP pointed the finger at the party’s field operations, the army of organisers deployed to gather and feed back voting data to the centre. ‘Up until 2.30 a.m. on Friday morning we were still being told we were going to win the election,’ he said. ‘I was told, “Don’t worry, we’re getting the samples from the counts fed back, and they’re showing it’s okay. The exit poll is wrong. Our numbers are still holding up.” It was madness. All you had to do was turn on a TV and you could see we’d lost. At 2.30 a.m., I was in a Sky News studio and the presenter Adam Boulton knew what was happening. “Labour is saying the exit poll is wrong,” he said, off-air. “In a few hours, they’ll be wishing it was right.”’
The exit poll gave the Tories 77 more MPs than Labour and a minority government. David Cameron finished with a 99-seat lead, and an overall majority. Labour had not just misjudged the election, but the country in which the election was held.
Most of the blame, inevitably, is being aimed at the leader’s office. ‘When the campaign started we were told we had to clear all leaflet design past the leader’s office,’ said one party worker. ‘We thought that would be a nightmare, but for the first part of the campaign it worked really well. We’d email the art, and about an hour or so later we’d get the response, “Great. Go with this.” Then one day someone got the message, “Excellent. All good.” But when they went to respond they realised they’d failed to insert the original attachment. All the time, Ed’s team had been signing off the leaflets without bothering to look at them.’
Another Labour insider told of the scene in the press office when Miliband posed with the notorious Ed stone, the 8ft 6in slab of limestone upon which his six key election pledges were inscribed. When it appeared on TV, a press officer ‘started screaming. He stood in the office, just screaming over and over again at the screen. It was so bad they thought he was having a breakdown.’
But many MPs and aides believe the key to Miliband’s failure lies with his private polling operation, run by Stan Greenberg and James Morris. The latter appeared on BBC Newsnight this week to claim that he knew last year that things were going badly.
He doesn’t seem to have shared that hunch with his colleagues. ‘I sat in a room and saw Greenberg and Morris explain how it was structurally impossible — impossible — for us to poll less than 35 per cent in this election,’ said one. In the event, it was 30 per cent, against the Conservatives’ 37 per cent. A far cry from the tie predicted by most pollsters.
Another MP said: ‘The polling was the most sensitive part of the operation. That’s because it was the polling that showed Ed’s personal ratings. So they kept it very, very tight. Only about four or five people in Ed’s office had access to it and they didn’t like sharing it outside Ed’s team. In fact, it would be circulated in a way that meant those people would hold back bits of data from each other.’
This failure to compile or share accurate data proved catastrophic. In Yorkshire, hundreds of activists were deployed to Sheffield Hallam in an attempt to ‘decapitate’ Nick Clegg. But half an hour down the road was Morley and Outwood, the seat of Ed Balls. In the final days of the 2010 campaign, Balls telephoned an MP friend. ‘I’ve just had Alicia Kennedy [Labour’s deputy general secretary] on,’ said Balls. ‘She says I might be in trouble in my seat and I should get back there. What do you think?’
‘Get back there now,’ his friend said. Balls did and clung on by 1,101 votes.
This time, no call arrived. There are some in the Balls camp who think that was no accident. ‘The leader’s office had the polling data, and they sat on it,’ a Balls ally told me. ‘They knew what was happening nationally two weeks out, they knew what that meant for Ed’s seat. And they sat on it.’ The implication is that Miliband thought he would run a minority government after an election that might depose his shadow chancellor. And that he considered this no bad thing.
Others in the party dispute this. ‘Ed needed every seat he could. I don’t believe he’d deliberately let Balls go,’ said one MP. Another senior Labour official said: ‘Either Ed’s the best actor in the world, or he genuinely thought he was going to win right up until the end.’
This raises another fascinating and disturbing possibility. There is no doubt that Labour had evidence that the election was swinging away from them. On the Monday before polling day I spoke to a Labour insider who had been told, ‘This SNP thing is hurting us. We’re slipping. If it stops, we’re okay. But if it doesn’t, we’re dead.’
As we know, it didn’t stop. But did Ed Miliband know? Is it possible that his Zen-like state was in part the product of his staff’s inability to tell him the hard truth? ‘I think that’s possible,’ said one shadow cabinet member. ‘They operated like medieval courtiers in there. And Ed was convinced right until the final knockings he was going to win.’
Ed Miliband was an idealist until the end. He surrounded himself with academics, took inspiration from political textbooks and had an extraordinary ability to detach himself from the hue and cry of daily politics. He created his own world and lived in it. This explains his preternatural calm and his astonishing self-belief — but it also explains why he drove his party over a cliff.