A lot of journalists who were never particularly predisposed to Jeremy Corbyn and his strange cult of personality are dancing on his leadership’s grave, even while he is still technically in situ. Many of them are pronouncing Corbyn Labour’s worst ever leader, almost as if this were so obvious it needn’t be explained. Now, many long time readers will know that I am hardly what you could call a Corbyn fan myself. Yet I don’t think he was Labour’s worst ever leader. He’s only the second worst ever. The worst Labour leader, in the 120-year history of their party, is without a doubt Ed Miliband. Further, without Ed Miliband’s leadership, Corbyn could never have come even close to being Labour leader.
For some of the younger amongst you, I need to explain where the Labour Party was precisely ten years ago. Struggling under Brown’s leadership, behind in the polls to the Tories – yet not all that far behind given Labour had been in government for almost thirteen years. Most pundits thought it would be tough for Labour to win the next general election, but far from easy for the Tories to do so either. One of the real success stories of the New Labour years that everyone seems to have completely forgot about was that Labour had begun to be thought of as the natural party of government. People were writing books about the strange death of Conservative Britain while three successive Tory leaders failed to become prime minister.
The 2010 general election was far from a disaster for the Labour Party. Yes, they had lost, but the Tories failed to get a majority. People were clearly still unconvinced by the Conservatives. All the talk of the Lib Dem surge giving the third party over a hundred seats, possibly even making them the official opposition, proved to be ridiculous. The Labour vote was far stickier than most onlookers had imagined.
To have gone from this state of affairs to Jeremy Corbyn as leader in just over five years is remarkable – and could not have happened without Ed Miliband’s leadership. Picking Ed over David remains the fork in the road for the Labour Party; the point at which they threw away the gains of the past twenty years to pursue some pot of gold left by socialist leprechauns at the end of the SWP rainbow.
One of the big mistakes of Ed Miliband’s early tenure as leader was tone. As ever when the Labour Party loses an election, all sorts of nut jobs emerge from the woodwork calling for revolution/general strikes/insert crazy far left idea here. What Labour needed was a steady hand at the wheel. Ed needed to tell everyone to relax a little; the government was going to be very unpopular in due course. The Lib Dems have killed themselves. We just need to appear to be the sane ones as the Tories make cuts no one will like; be tough, sensible opposition. Instead, Miliband stoked the fire, hoping that getting left-wing activists hyped up would somehow work out for Labour. He compared cuts marchers to suffragettes; told us endlessly that we had a week/a day/a fortnight to “save the NHS”; he started using militant leftist buzzwords in speeches. Add to this the obsession with the Lib Dems, which almost single-handedly protected the Tories from most of the criticism for the policies being enacted by the Coalition. This had the immediate intended effect: the left went mental overnight, spraying “Tory scum” under rail bridges and marching ad nauseam. It was as if the New Labour era had had no discernible effect on Britain; like we’d erased the whole period and returned to the late-80s all of a sudden.
Miliband incorporated this leftist rhetoric with a policy agenda that would not have been out of place during the New Labour era, which turned out to be a fatal combination. He was calling upon the left to rise and march while giving them Brown-esque policy. This pretty much single-handedly created the situation that Labour finds itself in today, where you can never be left-wing enough. That’s before we talk about the more structural damage Ed Miliband did to Labour: the changing of the way leaders are elected, setting up a war between the PLP and the members that could still destroy the party now, being only the most notable.
Corbyn is really just the result of the Ed Miliband era, in retrospect. And Corbyn was only the nail in the coffin to the idea that Labour could in any respect be seen as the natural party of government – something that now sounds hilarious to even begin to suggest.
You can say that all this discussion about who is the worst Labour leader ever is academic; the party needs to look to the future, not the past. Yet one of the things that may stop the Labour Party moving forward is the fact that they have yet to understand their recent past. The damage done by Ed Miliband needs to be reappraised and then undone if Labour want to win again any time within the next two decades.