Tim Bale: Vital lessons for Labour from Miliband’s failure

ONE of the key qualities of any leader is the ability to learn lessons from the past and to apply them to the future. Whoever wins Labour’s top job is going to have to do that – and do it fast.

The five years the party spent with Ed Miliband at the helm may be destined to become a footnote in history, but they needn’t be completely wasted.

After all, as self-help gurus are fond of pointing out, even setbacks can turn out to be learning opportunities.

Perhaps the first thing some Labour people got wrong after 2010 was to understate the depth of the party’s defeat in the general election held that year.

The fact that the party was on the end of one of its worst-ever drubbings couldn’t be completely dismissed, but the scale of its rejection by the electorate didn’t hit home as much as it might have done – firstly, because Labour lost fewer seats in Parliament than many expected and, secondly, because the Tories failed to win an overall majority.

They managed it this time but Labour also upped its support, meaning that many of its members still won’t get the message.

The second mistake Labour made in 2010 has already been repeated, and that’s to stage a leadership election before there has been a chance to conduct a proper post-mortem examination.

The problem with doing that is that the best analysis of what is broken and how to fix it might come from a candidate who, for various reasons, people don’t warm to, leading them to vote for somebody whose own analysis turns out to be way off beam.

In 2010, David Miliband was almost certainly right to insist that Labour would get nowhere unless it focused first on regaining economic credibility. But, although he came close to winning, his perceived closeness to Tony Blair, his supposed inability to ‘speak human’, and mistakes made by his campaign team, eventually saw him beaten by his brother – a politician who, fatally, was never quite able to decide between swiftly conceding or aggressively contesting the idea that Labour had made a mess of the economy.

Labour’s third mistake was to pick a leader who thought he could play himself in rather than get runs on the board as quickly as possible. Most of us – probably very sensibly – pay very little attention to politicians, so they only have limited opportunities to make an impression.

The first few days, weeks and months after getting elected are therefore absolutely crucial to any party leader. Ed Miliband lacked a plan for his first hundred days that might have allowed him to hit the ground running and jolt people into taking a second look at him and Labour more generally.

The five years between 2010 and 2015 should also serve as a reminder to Labour that, if it does pick a dud this time around, it has to get shot of him (or her) sooner rather than later. Its rulebook makes it difficult to trigger a leadership contest, so it either needs changing or big beasts (assuming there are any) in the Shadow Cabinet must have the guts to resign en masse so as to force someone out if they won’t do the decent thing themselves (which – like Ed Miliband – they almost certainly won’t).

Ed may have put in the odd strong performance in the Commons and at party conference but this was never going to be enough to persuade all those voters who persistently told pollsters that he just wasn’t up to the job.

True, an impressive leader isn’t enough to win a party an election. But the chances of winning one without the public being able to picture him or her on the steps of 10 Downing Street are pretty slim.

The Miliband era should also teach Labour that there is little point hoping to make up for its inability to pick up votes in middle-class, middle-income, middle-of-the-road, middle-England by enthusing either self-declared left-wingers or the worryingly large bunch of people – especially young and poorer people – who don’t normally bother to vote.

In the case of the former, there simply aren’t enough of them out there and any attempt to appeal to them is likely to put off the vast majority of voters who regard themselves as inhabiting the centre ground. In the case of the latter, however much they tell pollsters they’ll vote for you, many of them won’t actually do it on the day.

Labour under Miliband didn’t completely abandon that centre ground, but often seemed too embarrassed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to trumpet the considerable gains made between 1997 and 2010.

It also seemed to think it wouldn’t matter too much if the Tories promised pensioners (who do vote) the moon and Labour offered them little or nothing in order to offer a better deal to young people (who don’t).

These are by no means all of the lessons from Ed Miliband’s failed five year mission – but they are probably the most important.

Whether whoever succeeds him is capable of learning from them, and therefore of doing better than he did, remains to be seen.