Now we know what cost Labour in 2015: Ed Miliband didn’t go far enough | Owen Jones

In the light of Jeremy Corbyn’s surge, it’s now clear that the former Labour leader’s election defeat was caused by pandering to the right of his party

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

So now we know Labour suffered its 2015 rout not because it was too leftwing, but because it was not radical enough. Why conduct a postmortem on the long-deceased, or pick at an old scab, when there are now so many fresher wounds? 2015, after all, was another political age. “2015 politics: Ed Miliband eats a sandwich a bit weirdly,” as one tweet put it last year. “2016 politics: everything is on fire.” Trump, Brexit, Corbyn, a snap election that calamitously rebounded: it sometimes feels as though 50 years of politics have been compressed into just two.

It matters because the debate over ideas has yet to be settled. During the initial rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair – taking time off from advising brutal dictators – confessed that he would not want a leftwing Labour party to win, even if he thought that was a plausible electoral route, which he did not. He advised Corbyn’s supporters to seek a heart transplant. He now has the honesty to say that this radical platform could indeed triumph, but he still would not wish it to do so. This perspective is not shared by the large majority of Labour MPs, many of whom believed the combined array of leftwing policies would lead to electoral Armageddon but are relieved – even excited – to discover otherwise. There remains a faction, however, that leans towards Blair’s perspective and its view is grossly overrepresented in the commentariat.

When Ed Miliband’s Labour lost in 2015, the Financial Times summed up the prevailing wisdom: “Ed Miliband’s move to the left lost Labour the election.” In the race to replace him, Yvette Cooper assailed Labour’s manifesto for sounding “anti-business, anti-growth and, ultimately, anti-worker for the many people employed by large companies”. The argument was as follows: Miliband had spent too much time trashing New Labour, which left the electorate unappreciative of the party’s achievements, and provided a foundational myth for the calamity of Corbynism. Corbyn’s ascent, then, was seen as total political madness. After losing an election badly, Labour was seen as doubling down on the views that had condemned the party to defeat in the first place.

The successes and failures of the Miliband era of 2010-15 should therefore now be reassessed. History normally dictates that a Labour defeat is followed by acrimonious infighting. That’s what happened in 1979, in 1951 and in 1931, but not 2010. This was an era of false unity. The Labour right believed the leadership was failing to address Tory accusations of profligacy (after the party’s failure to combat the myth that spending caused the country’s economic crisis), and a perception that it was soft on social security and immigration. The Labour left held that the problem was an “austerity-lite” economic agenda, rhetoric that was too tough on immigration (summed up by Labour’s pre-election “controls on immigration” mug), and benefit-bashing. But the belief that victory was within grasp – largely because of an inevitable Liberal Democrat rout – defused the bitterness in those divisions.

Miliband recognised that the Thatcherite consensus was transient, and already crumbling. The analysis of what was wrong with Britain – from a cost-of-living crisis (Britain is enduring the longest squeeze in wages since the Napoleonic era) to rampant job insecurity – was correct, even if radical solutions were lacking. Miliband was the son of a pre-eminent Marxist intellectual who cut his teeth as a New Labour adviser: the contradiction was apparent in a leader who said he wanted to save capitalism and bring back socialism. His failure lay not in rubbing the tummy of the party to make it feel good about itself, but conceding too much to the party’s right. His error was not trashing New Labour too much, but rather not offering a sufficiently clear break from it that could have challenged the mantra of “they’re all the same”. Both Blair and Corbyn had their own factional groupings – Progress and Momentum respectively – and confronted the opposing wing of their party. Miliband hailed from a political generation that feared the internecine conflicts of the 1980s. He was reduced to being nearly the most leftwing member of his own shadow cabinet, lacking an organised base in his party and with very few media outriders.

After his own ejection from parliament, Ed Balls blamed Miliband for holding back his “pro-business agenda”. But it was Balls who held Labour back from having a radical economic alternative that may have saved the party from its rout. Research by the TUC after the 2015 defeat found that 42% of voters felt Labour was too soft on big business, compared with 22% who believed the party had been too tough.

Let’s be clear. Corbyn’s success is down to him and the insurgency behind him. He made the decision to paint his radical manifesto in “primary colours”, as one senior Labour figure from the old order puts it. Take rail: the old offer had promises on public options for rail that were too complex and muddled to cut through; Corbyn’s Labour simply offered nationalisation. In truth, the manifesto reflected where people had shifted. Corbyn went for bust and brought Labour far closer to government than it had been after its terrible defeat two years ago.

But it was Corbyn who most passionately defended Miliband’s manifesto when he launched his own leadership campaign two years ago. From non-dom tax to zero hours to housing, the foundations were there. Miliband was the bridge between New Labour and Corbynism, as he himself has put it. A lurch straight from one to the other would have been impossible: rather than a failed aberration, Labour’s 2010-15 era may well be judged by history as a necessary period of transition. Labour’s right framed Miliband as the party’s guilty man: perhaps, on reflection, they would conclude that it was his attempt to keep them on side that caused most political damage.

None of this is to demand the penitence from the right that would have been painfully extracted from the left after a Tory landslide. Blairite former Labour adviser Hopi Sen once suggested his wing of the party yelled at the left to swim through a river of shit “so we could tell them why they’re completely wrong”, and if they obliged, to “tell them that they’re late, and their lateness means they won’t be listened to in the future”. This approach should not be reciprocated.

Instead: a plea. Times have changed. New Labour was a product of its time. Thatcherism could not have triumphed in the 1960s; Corbynism is the child of our own era. To understand the future, we must reconsider the past. And the lesson is this: Labour’s role is to tear down a bankrupt social order, not defend it.


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

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