Barely a week into the general election campaign, Ed Miliband, the architect of Labour’s manifesto, turned up unannounced on the doorstep of a colleague in a neighbouring constituency. “You’re right”, he said dejectedly to his fellow MP. What he confirmed in those two words was the view that the campaign had been hijacked by Peter Mandelson. Anyone seen as a close ally of Gordon Brown was being given the cold shoulder. There was a campaign taking place within a campaign and whatever happened, beyond a stunning and game-changing Labour victory, Brown was to be the loser.
“Gordon’s managed to put the plotters in charge”, said his colleague glumly.
“You won’t believe what’s going on in Victoria Street”, Ed Balls confided to those who already shared their suspicions. By the second week, some of Brown’s closest aides were becoming convinced that the plot was aimed at ensuring his swift removal on the morning after the election. He was to be replaced by David Miliband in a “bloodless coup”.
The speculation was as detailed as it was impossible to confirm: exploratory talks had already been had with Nick Clegg over the possibility of a post-election deal; Clegg had delivered what the plotters wanted to hear: he could work with Labour, but not with Brown; in the event that Labour came third in the poll of votes, but with enough seats to form a coalition government and keep the Tories out, Brown would have to go – and quickly.
The party rule drawn up to deal with the event of a Prime Minister’s illness making them “permanently unavailable” was to be invoked by a special meeting of the Cabinet which would then vote to install, temporarily or otherwise, David Miliband. The calculation was that Brown would have only five votes of the 23 Cabinet members, a symptom of the fact that he had failed to make the Government “his own”. Mandelson would be Foreign Secretary and Vince Cable would take over the Treasury.
The quid pro quo for Liberal Democrat support was predicted to be pledges from David Miliband on reform of party funding (reducing the role of the unions), a referendum on full proportional representation, constitutional reform and talks about the creation of a new centre-left party – one which would jettison what remained of the left and the historic link with the trade union movement.
A typical Labour conspiracy in the debilitating, over-long feud between the two houses of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? Perhaps. But one shared, by accounts of at least two of his closest aides, by Brown himself. Then came the welcome performance of Nick Clegg in the first televised leaders’ debate that transformed the campaign. Except that Clegg excelled beyond preferred expectations and was no longer the dog under the underdog.
He started publicly flirting with, then rejecting, both bigger parties and re-opening options. The X-Factor idol had become a tease and was beginning to annoy his Labour suitors. That was soon to change but, publicly at least, not for several days.
By election launch plus 11 days, Thursday April 22 and the morning of the second leaders’ television debate, The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was reporting from the Brown election tour that the Prime Minister was being served up to the electorate as a sort of minor royal, with lots of cuppas with Labour supporters in front rooms but nothing that allowed Brown to be himself in a campaigning way.
“Some of Brown’s Cabinet colleagues are beginning to despair… several telling The Guardian that the leader’s time is being wasted, that he is travelling from Worcester to Birmingham to Oxford to Cardiff to generate nothing more than a few wallpaper pictures for the local news.
“[Some] suspect that Brown has lost out in a battle for control with his one-time nemesis and new ally, Peter Mandelson. In this reading, Mandelson has dispatched Brown to the provinces so that he can remain in charge at the centre.”
On the same day, the paper’s columnist Seamus Milne suggested that senior Labour figures were “transparently delighted by the third party eruption”. He went on: “For the Blairites, it has another attraction. As one senior Labour figure declared, a Lib-Lab pact would be “the ultimate fulfilment of the New Labour mission”. They also see it as an ideal opportunity finally to replace Brown with David Miliband – now expected to win backing from centre-left figures such as Jon Cruddas.
Cruddas’ stance in the new realignment has been simplistically misrepresented in the media, but his role was always going to be crucial if he held his seat.
The scenario was this: the electoral system is bust and there is a popular mood to change it; if the Tories are allowed the power to implement their proposals for change in parliamentary boundaries and numbers of seats, Labour would be out of power forever; leaving aside the Liberal Democrat meaning of the slogan, this was a once-in-a-generation chance for change, to create a new, permanent “progressive” political realignment which would leave the Tories out of power for good. It was what advocates would later call “the bigger picture” and what critics would call the SDP mark two. Even if, in the advocacy of tactical voting to achieve the goal, it meant sacrificing Labour seats.
The following weekend, Brown announced that he was going to “up the tempo” on his campaign, a public expression of the internal attempt to wrest it back from “the plotters” (whom he blamed with lumbering him with an Elvis impersonator at a key point), and talked of the election being the “fight of my life”. As far as the campaign-within-a-campaign was concerned, it was a fight for his political life.
By Tuesday April 27, Clegg appeared to be back on script. “Clegg: I’ll work with anybody except Brown” was the Daily Telegraph headline which summed up the spin of the Liberal Democrat day. While David Cameron warned his rival against “holding the country to ransom”, Clegg joked that he would even see “a man from the moon” as an acceptable partner in a coalition if it meant that reforms to voting, taxes, education and banking were driven through. But he singled out Brown as the one person he could not do business with. “Nothing personal”, he said, but Brown could not cling on to power if Labour turned in fewer votes than the Lib Dems and the Tories.
Then came the Rochdale encounter. As it went viral on the internet and made global live television, Labour members held their heads in their hands even before Brown did – compounding the error over the on-air microphone by being unflagged by his staff about the radio studio’s live camera – a standard in today’s multi-platform media. In Barking and Dagenham, Stoke Central and Oldham East & Saddleworth, the consternation, and probable effect, were greater than the immediate aftermath recorded among public opinion. While the view appeared to be that this was “just Gordon being Gordon”, two factors kicked in. One, with a wider resonance than these constituencies, was that this represented the exposure of the real Gordon Brown: two-faced, arrogant, detached from reality. Political nous prevented the other two major party leaders from attempting to exploit this “there-but-the-grace-of-God-go-I” moment, but it may have been instrumental in keeping the Labour vote from turning out or even exacerbated the stemming of protest voters drifting back to Labour.
The other factor, with greater local traction, was the reasonably-put question about eastern European immigration – albeit abetted with the emotive use of the words “flocking here”. Did it trigger Margaret Thatchers’s “swamping” moment for Brown, zeroing out any other language to which he ought to have been better attuned? The incident was evidence to Brown’s internal critics that you could not take him anywhere; likewise to his increasingly despondent coterie of supporters, who felt that taking over his own campaign strategy – to meet the voters and be himself – delivered the plotters’ self-fulfilling prophesy.
What was less evident was that the Mandelson strategy had also ruled out any “hostages to fortune”, such as any boast about the proposed increase in the national minimum wage or redistribution of wealth. The attack, rightly in the consistent opinion of Tribune’s leader commentaries, was on the threat of the Tories’ economic policies, but it ducked, as though embarrassed, the potential effect of Labour’s social welfare policies.
Discredited former “new” Labour spin-doctors such as Benjamin Wegg-Prosser were calling the shots, along with his old boss, Mandelson. When the Cabinet were paraded to support an education policy promotion in south London, Balls – still Schools Secretary and party spokesman – travelled from his constituency where the Tories were already planning to give Labour their “Portillo moment” only to be silenced by Mandelson. Only he and, perforce, Gordon Brown would address the cameras.
Among those said to have been excluded from the campaign strategy was Charlie Whelan, head of political policy at Labour’s biggest funder, the Unite union. Nothing could be further than the truth, other than, in the sense that, while soaking up the union’s funds, Mandelson made it clear the union’s subservient role would be legalised out of existence in the future.
Whelan was there in the spinning room, but his strategic spinning role was left to tweeting. Take a look – he’ll be denying it now.
The Peter Mandelson-David Miliband anti-union political elitist alliance saw a fresh boost with the flagging up of the suggestion that supporters of Compass – which boasts it is the most influential and effective campaign group on the “left” – should vote tactically. The proposal – which dismayed and enraged Labour candidates and members in marginal seats across the country, many of whom resigned their Compass membership – was endorsed in a ballot of members by 74 per cent to 14 per cent.
This is the internet view of one Compass punter on the advice: “Well, the decision means that Labour’s share of the national vote goes down – especially since there is no reciprocal arrangement from the Lib Dems. And, since Clegg has unilaterally rewritten the constitutional rulebook to take account of national share, this will contribute to a worse showing for Labour, and therefore increase the chances of Cameron getting to Number. 10. All in the name of ‘progressive politics’.
“Tactically, reproducing the Tory target list is utterly inept. Are we meant to vote Lib Dem in Gillingham & Rainham, simply because this is the first Tory target, but where the Lib Dems have no hope? If so, this only increases the chances of Tory victory at constituency level. If not, why include it in the list? If, instead, we are meant to start in Watford, where the Lib Dems are already in second place, if their surge in the polls is to believed, they may have won it anyway, but without the help from supposed Labour members and supporters, again diminishing our national share of the vote and demoralising our supporters and members in the area.
“Or perhaps Colne Valley is what you have in mind, more of a three-way contest with the Lib Dems in third in 2005? But again, how can you be certain that by handing Labour votes to the Lib Dems, you won’t hand the seat to the Tories – even at a local level, before Nick Clegg interprets it as a reason to enter coalition with the Tories?
“This is a foolish approach and tactically unsophisticated – and whose sole guaranteed effect will be to minimise Labour votes and seats. People have been expelled for less.”
Compass head Neal Lawson reproduced the Tory target list on the organisation’s website as a basis for tactical voting, rather than a list of seats where Labour has no chance. Judith Blake, the Labour candidate in Leeds North West, would probably have empathised with Lawson’s critics, as would other candidates in three-way marginals, or even in no-hope seats such as Woking where the Labour candidate was at least flying the Labour flag.
When Blake, a now former Compass member, protested, she was told by Compass to consider “the bigger picture”. The bigger picture included Compass giving supportive space on its website to Caroline Lucas, the Green candidate in Brighton Pavilion, another marginal where Labour had a high-quality candidate in Nancy Platts.
Eventually, four days before polling, Brown found his voice, speaking out for the low paid at a rally in Westminster, but sounding as though his passion was driven from a position of opposition. The next day, he underlined the mood around him by admitting that if he could no longer make a positive difference “I’d go and do something else”. It was beginning to look as though a coup would not be necessary after all.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Ed Balls, Ed and David Miliband, Yvette Cooper and any other minister who still had their seat and a government car was offering a lift to other surviving MPs on their way back to Westminster and Number 10, where Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman and others who did not need to travel so far were already gathering for the arrival of Gordon Brown. Winning outright had long been abandoned as a plausible outcome. But the biggest fight, not just for the soul of the Labour Party but for its very existence, was about to begin.