Cycle of Decline
Working on a losing political campaign is a soul destroying experience. That’s because politics is brutally binary. You win. You lose. Ed Miliband’s team know they’re losing. And the cracks are starting to show. The Euro election briefing war. The Sun debacle. The botched IPPR policy launch. Whenever a campaign crashes and burns, it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a slow – cruelly slow – process.
First you feel the vibration. Then the turbulence. Then the engines fail. The nose gradually pitches down. You see the ground spiralling up to meet you. You reach for your parachute. But there are never quite enough parachutes to go round. Then nothing.
All losing campaigns go through the same stages. First there is Denial. You’ve looked at the polls, and they’re bad. But they can be explained. Factor X here. Factor Y there. All you need to do is tweak your strategy, shift this policy, rejig that announcement. All will be fine.
This stage was reached early in Ed Miliband’s leadership, around about the time he appointed Tim Livesey, his new chief of staff. Livesey would deal with the internal management issues in his office. Establish a grid. Put in place some policy development protocols. Then comes the second stage – Holding Your Nerve. It’s clear you have a problem with your strategy. A serious one. But the strategy is set. You’ve invested time and effort in it. Explained it. Briefed it. Sold it to your stakeholders.
So a meeting is held. Some people say “perhaps we need to consider something new”. Others say “this is not a time to lose our nerve”. The leader nods. The nerve holders carry the day.
For Ed Miliband’s team this came around the summer of 2013, when the economy began to turn, and the double dip recession was revised away. “The Tories are cutting too far, too fast,” had been the line. “Too far too fast” continued to be the line.
What follows is The Infighting. There’s no longer any denying it. The strategy hasn’t been working. You’ve held your nerve. But – surprise, surprise – it still isn’t working. So now you have to come up with a reason why. You can’t blame the strategy. It’s your strategy after all. You can’t blame your leader. Yet. So, you blame your colleagues.
Miliband’s team have been fractious from the very beginning. But the back-biting has really intensified over the past six months. Stewart Wood. Tim Livesey. Bob Roberts. Tom Baldwin. Anna Yearley. Each one has been the subject of negative briefing from their own colleagues.
As things begin to crumble from within the losing campaign there is one, final, desperate throw of the dice. The Game Changer. A major policy announcement that has sat dormant, and been constantly rejected by the “hold your nerve” camp, is dusted off. For Miliband this was the announcement of free owls for all. Sorry, the announcement of cuts to benefits for under-21 year olds.
But, predictably, the game hasn’t been changed. Because it never is.
Finally you reach the dénouement: Punching Out. Ejecting from a losing campaign occurs in two ways – one physical, the other psychological.
The former involves doing exactly what it says on the tin. People leave. A number of key members of Ed Miliband’s team did that early in his leadership, including Lucy Powell, his first chief of staff, and Polly Billington, his senior communications aide. Other staffers currently looking for safe parliamentary seats include Greg Beales, his pollster, and Torsten Henricson-Bell, his senior economics adviser.
Psychological separation from those left within the doomed political operation is a more subtle process. People stop predicting success, and begin rationalising defeat. They withdraw from the decision making process, for fear of taking personal ownership of the impending defeat. And most tellingly, they turn on the leader. They don’t criticise the leader’s judgment directly. Instead, the principal suddenly becomes deaf to their counsel. “I’ve told Ed X, but he won’t listen to me anymore. The only person he’s taking any notice of is Y”.
Ed Miliband’s team are punching out. Read between the lines of the morning newspapers, and it’s all there. “There is good Ed Miliband and bad Ed Miliband, and we need good Ed Miliband – the friend of Stewart Wood and Marc Stears [two free-thinking aides, both Oxford academics] – to triumph,” The Times quoted a Labour source saying a couple of months ago.
You desperately try to hold your nerve. You fight your colleagues. You fight to stay alive. Then, when all hope has gone, you try to save yourself.
It is the cycle of every losing campaign. Ultimately, it is the cycle of politics. And, over the next 11 months, it represents the final cycle of Ed Miliband’s leadership. ■