Grant Woodward: Labour’s fate was sealed in front of a Yorkshire audience

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WHEN historians look back at the election of 2015, they may just conclude it was a race won and lost in Yorkshire. After all, this was the only place in the land where the main party leaders faced proper scrutiny in an otherwise anodyne and desperately cynical campaign.

Two moments during the BBC Question Time debate at Leeds Town Hall a week before polling day – one truly terrifying, the other faintly comedic – sealed the deal for David Cameron and convinced any waverers they simply could not risk handing Labour the keys to Downing Street.

Much had been made in the preceding weeks of the need to get the “Cautious Caths” onside – the 30-something mothers-of-two who made up the archetypal swing voters the parties needed to woo. In the space of just 20 minutes, Ed Miliband convinced them that a vote for him was just too much 
of a gamble.

The first moment, the chilling one, came out of the blue. For the first six minutes of his appearance in front of a typically no-nonsense White Rose audience split equally between voters of the main parties, the Labour leader had played a commendably straight bat.

He wasn’t exactly sporting sackcloth and ashes, but he admitted mistakes had been made during Labour’s years in power, particularly when it came to regulating the banks. “We’ve learned that lesson,” he assured the audience to a decent round of applause, proof that this was exactly what they needed to hear.

Then came the thunderbolt. An innocuous enough query – “Do you accept that when Labour was last in power it overspent?” – should have been another easy mea culpa for the Doncaster North MP to pat back down the pitch.

But he had other ideas. “No I don’t,” he replied snippily, to audible gasps of astonishment from the audience. Some even broke out into nervous, disbelieving laughter.

What a minute, said another bloke, clearly unable to believe his ears. “If I get to the end of the week and can’t afford to buy a pint, I’ve overspent. We got to the end of a government and during that 13-year period you spent, spent, spent. You can’t stand there and say you didn’t overspend.”

But the Labour leader could. And he did – thereby ensuring that anyone at home toying with the idea of giving Labour another chance on the basis that they couldn’t possibly make such a horlicks of it second time around promptly concluded that the Miliband-Balls axis was well and truly beyond the pale.

From that moment on, Labour were dead and buried. Regardless of whether they were responsible for the 2007 crash or merely helpless spectators, the facts spoke for themselves. For six years before the crash, Labour had increased borrowing year after year, after year. For the avoidance of doubt, they even left a note – from outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne – that there was no money left. Yet here was their leader refusing to accept liability.

After that clanger came the moment of farce. As the Labour leader left the stage, waving nerdishly to the audience as he did so, he stumbled and almost fell flat on his face. The Channel 4 show Gogglebox – which shows the reactions of households across Britain to the week’s television highlights – revealed the response was the same up and down the land. The nation – or at least the five million who bothered to watch Question Time – either rolled around their sofas howling with laughter or hid behind their hands, unable to watch. It was as if Buster Keaton had been reborn as a self-confessed “North London geek” with designs on Downing Street. Make this clown Prime Minister? Don’t make us laugh.

The trouble is that the Labour Party had allowed Britain’s natural love of an underdog to cloud their vision of where their campaign was really at.

The cringe-inducing outbreak of “Milifandom” – complete with hen party selfies and brief Je Suis Ed craze which saw members of the public film themselves eating bacon sandwiches, a task apparently beyond the Labour leader – told them that he had a realistic shot of becoming Prime Minister.

Clearly the Labour campaign couldn’t tell the difference between sympathy 
and support. And at the Question Time debate the stark contrast between the hapless Mr Miliband and the statesmanlike David Cameron was 
finally made all too clear.

But if the scales were lifted from the nation’s eyes in Yorkshire, then the die was surely cast five years earlier across the Pennines, when the Labour Party made the mistake of electing the wrong brother at its conference in Manchester.

David Miliband was on the money this week when he said that his brother’s shift from the centre ground – his bribe to the unions that brought him the leadership – was a disaster waiting to happen. His campaign, he intimated, would have embraced the sense of “aspiration and inclusion” that Ed so readily abandoned.

Staring down the barrel of what is likely to be at least another decade in the wilderness, Labour will now have plenty of time to wonder what might have been.

Grant Woodward