In May of 2010, the Labour Party relinquished control of the British government after 13 years in office. Consequently, the party's leader, Gordon Brown, stepped down from his position. Here, we shall begin our story of Labour’s ten long years out of power.
The favorite for the ensuing leadership race was presumed to be David Miliband, a politician with a rather accomplished background. The son of a Marxist intellectual, Miliband had graduated from Oxford with a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics before becoming a prominent cabinet member in the governments of Blair and Brown.
Unbeknownst to David, however, another member of Brown’s cabinet was planning on running as well. This cabinet member had also happened to study PPE at Oxford in his youth. He, too, spawned from a Marxist father. He was David’s younger brother, Ed.
Ed likely ran against his brother because of their differing political views. Whereas a victory for David would have meant a return to a version of centrist Blairism, Ed sought to push Labour in a social democratic direction.
As the leadership campaign went on, Ed’s star began to rise, and David was no longer the clear frontrunner. The elder brother was still, however, the favorite candidate of Labour MPs, an important fact given Labour’s quirky selection process. The Labour Party's electoral college featured three electorates of varying sizes: MPs and MEPs, affiliated unions, and dues-paying general members. Votes were weighted such that each electorate counted as a third of the overall vote, so individual MPs wielded an inordinate amount of power.
Soon, it was time for judgement day. Ed prevailed, but not without controversy. In the final round of the election, Ed won 50.65% of the overall vote to David’s 49.35%. (There were multiple rounds because three minor candidates were also in the race.) However, David won clear majorities of the votes of MPs/MEPs (53.4%) and general Labour members (54.4%). Only by winning 59.8% of union votes was his more left-wing brother able to emerge victorious.
Unfortunately for Ed, his victory ended up scarring his relationship with his brother for years. Whereas Ed had previously been the best man at David’s wedding, in 2015 he wasn’t even invited to David’s birthday party.
Perhaps, it would have all been worth it if Ed had been able to capture 10 Downing Street, but alas, his dream died in 2015. There were several factors that contributed to the outcome of a Conservative majority government, but here I will only mention those most pertinent to Labour.
The rise of the Scottish National Party was one cause of Labour’s demise, as it allowed the Conservatives to wield an effective line of attack against Miliband. Polling firms projected that Labour would probably be unable to win a majority of the seats in Parliament, even if it ended up winning a plurality. Consequently, Labour’s path to government likely rested on some sort of agreement with the center-left SNP.
This was problematic to voters for two reasons. Firstly, the SNP is, of course, a secessionist party. The second reason has to do with the UK’s asymmetrical devolution of powers. Basically, three out of the four nations of the UK have their own devolved governments that have varying degrees of power. England, however, doesn’t, and so all bills affecting England just go through UK Parliament. For example, even though Scotland has its own health care system, Scottish MPs still get to vote on English health care bills. It is theoretically possible that Labour could have formed a government with the help of the SNP while the Conservatives won the majority of seats in England. This would’ve had the bizarre result of Labour passing left-wing policy affecting only England without the support of a majority of English MPs. (Something sort of similar to this occurred the last time Labour was in power.)
You may have seen this now-infamous 2015 tweet where David Cameron asserted, “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.” As the accompanying Facebook post makes clear, the chaos that Cameron is referring to is “the chaos of being held to ransom by the SNP.”
Labour came up with a plan to hold a constitutional convention to fix the voting problem of asymmetrical devolution, and the party promised a few weeks before the election not to work with the SNP, but the Conservative attacks were very effective.
In addition to the SNP problem, one of the biggest issues Labour had to deal with came in the form of a bacon sandwich. This photograph of Ed was memed into eternity over the course of the election cycle. As far as I am aware, it is the only picture of someone eating a bacon sandwich to have its own Wikipedia page. Although the picture was taken in 2014, The Sun made sure it was plastered on its front page the day before the election.
Ed’s lisp may have also contributed to his generally poor public image. 28% of Britons report experiencing accent discrimination, so it’s quite common for people in the country to be judged by the sound of their voice. Conversely, David Cameron was likely buoyed by his statesmanlike, posh accent.
It is impossible to quantify the extent to which Ed’s public persona was harmed by factors like the bacon sandwich photo and his lisp. Still, they certainly did not help. Furthermore, Britain’s right-wing tabloids had plenty of material to use to attack Miliband’s character during the election. To them, he was “Red Ed,” the socialist agent of chaos so untrustworthy that he knifed his own brother in the back.
And thus, Labour lost the 2015 election.
When we return, I will start Part II by discussing how Jeremy Corbyn got elected to replace Miliband later on in 2015. There’s a good chance we won’t send out an email notifying the release of Part II, so make sure to visit the blog again this Sunday. If people like this series on Labour, then I will blog more party histories in the future.
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