It was hard on Friday to walk past shops displaying the front pages of the right wing press, with ugly gloating at their success in destroying “Red Ed”; and to turn on the television and hear the gloating of Labour’s old right – Charles Clarke was especially revolting.
But I think I knew something was wrong very early on Thursday, when two strange things happened to me.
I was Labour’s opening teller in my local polling station in Finchley, north London. Normally at elections, Labour and Conservative tellers chat pleasantly enough about anything other than politics. Not this time. The Conservative teller greeted me by saying I ought to be ashamed of the way Labour was campaigning. The Sun and the Standard had both run last-minute stories about how “nasty Labour supporters” (Sun) in Finchley had telephoned orthodox Jews to give them the (very well known) information that our local Tory MP Mike Freer is gay.
If anyone did this – and no evidence has been produced – it was not done with the authority of Labour candidate Sarah Sackman or her team. Sarah said that if there was evidence, the Conservatives should take it to the police. But my fellow teller, apparently the administrator at a north London synagogue, either believed it or pretended to believe it, and so did most of the voters I saw that morning.
They also believed, or pretended to believe, that Labour’s mansion tax will hit every home – the last-minute lie that persuaded many people here with homes worth much less than £2 million not to vote for Sarah.
Then, as I was putting on my rosette, a small, neat, prosperous-looking man in a double-breasted suit stormed up to me and said “You’re not allowed to have to candidate’s name on your rosette.” The level of anger and contempt seemed quite out of proportion, even if he was right, which he wasn’t. The Conservative teller supported him.
In the first hour, dozens of expensive cars disgorged an army of the well-heeled, local people who must live a few streets from me, but whom I have never seen because they do not use local schools or go to local cafes and pubs. They shook hands with the Tory teller, had whispered conversations with him, and looked away as they passed me.
It was quite unlike the civilised exchange you normally get in polling stations. Mordor had seen the danger, and had come out in force to put the sans culottes back in their place.
My first hour there was horrible. My second was better, as the synagogue administrator was replaced by the civilised and friendly Councillor Eva Greenspan. But as the day wore on – as the constituency was suddenly flooded by smart young people knocking up for the Tories, as I heard more and more often that Ed Miliband would betray Israel – a toxic false allegation in a constituency with a 20% Jewish vote – I started to realise that what I was seeing was happening in every marginal in Britain.
At first they thought they could win by mocking Miliband. Miliband confounded that strategy, simply by being the calm, thoughtful, intelligent man he is. But the last minute localised blitzkrieg of rumour and innuendo did the job, against all expectations. It shows what you can do if you have unlimited money and the unqualified backing of most of the national press.
The implications are grim. Before the election, I wrote that Ed M is a Clem Attlee figure – most recently in the introduction to the new version of my Clem Attlee, out last week. I don’t withdraw a word of it. He’s got all Attlee’s qualities: he’s decisive, ruthless, and determined to make a better and more equal world. He lacks what Attlee lacked: the travelling salesman’s smile that passes for charisma in politics now.
He made no concessions to Murdoch, just as Attlee made none to Beaverbrook, and was punished in exactly the same way. Here’s Evening Standard writer Emile Hahn on Attlee during the 1950 election:
“He looks a dear little gentleman… If you aren’t a big tough guy you can be a little loveable guy that everybody in the club respects and handles gently for fear of breaking him. I wonder if it has occurred to Mr Attlee that this is a rough and naughty world…”
Here’s the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts in 2015, reporting that Miliband had tripped on a step as he left the last leaders’ debate:
“Oh no, Ed Miliband had a Norman Wisdom moment. Oooer, Mr Grimsdale! Poor, accident-prone Ed …. Darned dais. Darned, dang dais, dagnabbit. Who designed it that stoopid shape?…”
(I’ve met Quentin Letts and found him courteous and kind. I don’t know what it is about elections that brings out the playground bully in him.)
Attlee faced the same media loathing as Miliband, but became the greatest reforming Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Miliband has all Attlee’s qualities, and would have been as great a Prime Minister. Why did it work for Attlee and failed for Miliband? I think there are two reasons.
First, there is more money in politics, and it buys more. And second, to defy the will of finance and the media, Britain has to be feeling brave. It felt brave in 1945; it felt timorous in 2015.
The lesson Labour politicians will take from it is that you cannot win unless you abandon the idea of changing society, and neutralise media hostility by promising nothing that might arouse it.They will take us back to the dark days of New Labour.
So on Thursday we threw the chance of a generation to make a better, fairer, more civilised society, just as surely as Tony Blair’s government threw away the last generation’s chance. Mordor came out at the last moment, and crushed it.