“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.”
This epoch-defining phrase has achieved a remarkable feat. It has been used as a cliché in two different political periods. First, it was one of those coma-inducing platitudes repeated by David Cameron during the 2015 general election campaign. Now, it’s shouted into the Twitter void whenever something mildly chaotic happens (i.e. every fucking day), as people draw ironic attention to the fact that Cameron set Westminster on fire.
As a consequence, whereas Cameron used the phrase to jibe Ed Miliband, it is now deployed to defend the former Labour leader. People often use it to scorn those who voted for Cameron, accusing them of being duped by tabloid efforts to exploit Ed’s irrelevant flaws, such as his inability to eat a bacon sandwich. Their implied argument is that, if Ed had won the election, Britain would be staying in the EU and our green and pleasant isle would be a model of tranquillity.
Except, Ed didn’t win the election, and he bears much responsibility for the turmoil we currently face.
Since his resignation as Labour leader, it hasn’t been popular to criticise Ed Miliband. He has always possessed a goofy charm that appeals to political aficionados, and he has cultivated a cult following during his retreat to the backbenches. He has a popular podcast, he occasionally mows down the government on social media, and he’s generally seen as one of the most self-deprecating and easy-going politicians.
However, Ed’s image as a well-meaning, intelligent, harmlessly-awkward bloke buffers the former Labour leader from legitimate criticism. Looking back objectively, Ed’s time at the helm of the party can only be seen as a monumental failure. He and Ed Balls failed to persuasively rebuff the idea that Labour had overspent in government. The Tories set the agenda on public spending, and Labour’s promise of fewer cuts appeared to acknowledge the problem without promising a comprehensive solution. Meanwhile, Ed’s One Nation ideology was intellectually rigorous but couldn’t be converted to simple slogans, in contrast to Osborne’s long-term economic vapidities. And, while the right-wing press tactlessly attacked Miliband’s character and leadership ability, Ed did little to counter their depictions. The Edstone, for example, should have ended his career through sheer embarrassment.
Ultimately, Ed was not a passive figure in the 2015 election campaign. He had five years to convince voters – who were sceptical of Cameron – that he possessed the ideas and leadership to govern Britain. He not only failed, he took Labour backwards – handing Cameron the majority he needed to call for a referendum. Labour performed even worse than in 2010, under the leadership of the famously wooden Gordon Brown and in the midst of a crippling recession.
What’s more, Ed set in motion the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – handing us an opposition that is more concerned with political posturing than preventing Brexit chaos. Indeed, in 2014 Ed introduced a one-member one-vote system for Labour leadership elections. This facilitated a leftward surge when Corbyn was nominated onto the ballot in 2015, allowing roughly 400,000 new members to have the full and final say on the party leader. And while Labour’s mass membership has provided obvious benefits – not least financial – Corbyn lacks clear convictions on Europe.
The Labour leader was pilloried for his lack of zeal during the referendum campaign. One of the most memorable moments came when Corbyn was asked to rate his enthusiasm for remaining in the EU, answering: “about seven, seven and a half” out of 10. Although Labour has a clear domestic reform agenda, Corbyn is equivocal on the single most important issue in modern Britain. He wants to stymie May at every opportunity. His plan is to oppose the government and to portray the Prime Minister as both woefully incompetent and chronically irresponsible. Yet, with every passing day that Corbyn is devoted to simultaneously wrecking May’s Brexit plan, the Norway option and a People’s Vote, no deal becomes more likely. Corbyn doesn’t want to avoid chaos; he wants to capitalise on it.
Ed Miliband is of course not directly responsible for the EU referendum and the ensuing mayhem, nor for Jeremy Corbyn’s actions. But his electoral failure was a necessary precondition for harbingers of chaos to claim the mantle of power. If Ed was now leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. But we have to remember why he isn’t.
Sam Bright is the director of Backbench