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Another dispatch from inside the Westminster village

Consider the ruins of Ed Miliband’s political project. For four years the Labour party built up a vast edifice of policy and strategy. Commissions were commissioned, reviews reviewed, union executives entreated, business executives soothed.

For four years this project had enormous stature. Some were impressed, and claimed it would one day match the achievements of long-remembered glories. Others wondered quietly if perhaps this mighty structure was hollow. They saw a chink here, a crack there. A noisy, heretical, few said it would fall apart at any moment. Yet it stood, and they were ignored and mocked.

Then, in an instant as quick as David Dimbleby’s raised eyebrow, the whole thing vanished. Now, all that remains of the vast and dusty desert of Miliband’s political ambition is a trunkless stone, engraved with the words, ‘look upon my pledges, ye mighty, and despair’.

It is hard to believe, just a few weeks later, how sturdy the whole thing appeared. Indeed, according to some involved in the construction of the Miliband project, the whole thing was a mirage. We did not lead in the polls, we did not forge a progressive consensus. There were no red liberals.

It may be that the travellers from Miliband tell the truth, or a part of it. But there is only survival, and no honour in deserting a lost cause. It is understandable enough to seek to explain away your own part in a disaster, but it is not a particularly convincingly tale when told by those who built their careers and reputation while it was a success.

In surveying the stunning emptiness that the collapse has revealed – it apparently being a leadership followed by no one, with offices and associates entirely empty – it is worth paying a little respect to those who have stayed true to his ideas and his leadership, even in defeat.

A few months ago, this column carried a story about Stewart Wood and Marc Stears, calling them the ‘boys in the band’, the essential sidemen of the Miliband project. It concluded that, while the band played on, they would be hailed, but if the music ever stopped, they would take much of the blame. This was, I am told, taken rather as an attack on them. It was not meant as one, being more an observation on the often-casual cruelty that is political failure, in the midst of apparent success. So it goes.

The same is true of Miliband’s political team. Since every single frontbencher, trade union leader, plus a good share of the parliamentary Labour party and every lobby correspondent in Britain knew what was wrong, they should at least get some credit for their ability to keep the whole thing up so long.

The question is, was all that labour worthwhile?

This rather depends on what you believe. For those who genuinely thought that Miliband represented a chance to break from a stultifying, studied moderation, this correspondent at least will always say it was worth it. To believe and to fight for something is no small matter and, while good political leaders feel a deep responsibility to the success of their party, they also need faith in their cause.

It sounds counterintuitive, but the true believers were not the ones who kept the Miliband project from collapse, or who prevented a different approach being pursued.

That honour goes to the cynics. They exist under every leader. Those who, given the chance, will put tactics before principle, personal advancement before the broader cause. When times are good, they prosper. When times are bad, they find a new structure to shelter under.

It happens time and time again. It is happening again today. Watch the shifty eyes of the ambitious politician who chooses a leader not for what they believe, but for what they do not represent – a rival perhaps, or a network of old pals. See the fearful, clustering around those who they presume offer protection.

The tragic thing is this behaviour never works. Ask those who backed the David Miliband campaign in search of spoils, or made offers of transfers to his brother in return for some petty prize or other. What good did it do, in the end, all this calculus? Ask the veterans of the Tory wars, the apparently intelligent people who backed Iain Duncan Smith as leader, based on some calculation of advantage and avowed (but secretly mocked) adherence to the old verities.

One reason it does not work is that voters can see straight through it. The electorate may not have liked what Miliband was selling, but they could tell when he believed his claims were true. The same is true of every bit of the party, from top to bottom. When the disbelief outweighs the faith, they just stop listening.

The effect of this is that clever young cardinals backing old popes soon find themselves old cardinals stained with rumours of nepotism and turpitude past.

We are about to enter another leadership contest, one conducted in the wreckage of the last.

Your insider is an old cynic, one who has seen a few too many betrayals and briefings to be roused much by this piece of petty stupidity or that. All that can be said is this: ultimately, you are choosing who you think has the best chance to be prime minister and your belief in their ability. If, knowing that, you choose to vote for a leader, not based on shared beliefs, but on what you can get out of them, ask yourself: Why bother with politics at all? There are other, more lucrative, careers available.

While this election has barely begun, one thing is clear from the last one. Anyone who chooses a leader on any basis except their own beliefs ends up as shattered as the Ed stone will soon be.

You can get away with many things in politics. The one that never works is thinking one thing, voting another.

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