As the television exit poll was announced at Labour headquarters on the stroke of 10pm, there was a gasp of horror and lines of shocked party workers held their hands to their mouths.
Complete silence followed before Lord Falconer, the former lord chancellor, quickly addressed the room telling them he was an experienced hand, had seen incorrect exit polls before, and everyone had a job to do.
As dawn broke over London, Labour party workers knew their worst fears had been confirmed. Far from advancing from 2010, the party stepped back in terms of share of the vote and seats. There was weeping through the night, as well as exhaustion and horror at the thought of the next five years.
Labour in its focus groups had been picking up concern over the influence the SNP might hold over a minority Miliband government, but its team was given false comfort by the national opinion polls showing the party neck and neck.
The party did not realise the polls had yet again failed to pick up the “shy Tory” effect. Such was the difficulty that Labour field operations did not notice what was happening. “In some places we had more Labour ‘promises’ going into the polling booth than actually voted Labour, suggesting our promises were being taken to the polling booths by Labour only to vote Tory,” said one insider. Slam-dunk target seats through the East and West Midlands proved impregnable.
Labour officials argue the party simply could not get the SNP issue off its back and they are angry that broadcasters were so willing to run “process stories about what life would be like if the tartan hordes came over the border. We should probably have responded earlier and been clearer. Their attacks on us were not working and then they stumbled into combining it with the SNP, and we were caught. They had us on Scottish power, leadership and borrowing. The Tories won and they won well , but they won on a lie”.
The party also points the finger at Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, saying she cynically played right into the Conservative game. She cynically used language to damage Labour, not just in Scotland, but also in England, officials argue.
But many in the Miliband camp will say the election was not lost in the short campaign, but due to deeper issues, including Miliband’s own leadership appeal and his belief that the country was in a mood to be taken left.
Following his resignation, the familiar process of finding a new party leader began. The names immediately thrown up were Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper and possibly Liz Kendall. At the same time, there is likely to be a contest between Angela Eagle and Tom Watson to be deputy leader. The party national executive will set the timetable next week, and confirm that the election will be held by a form of one-member-one-vote.
There are signs that some are absolutely intent on ensuring the party stages a big debate, not a beauty contest. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said the party needed to speak to those concerned by loss of national identity as well as aspiration. He urged the party leadership not to rush the election, but instead conduct a brutal debate.
Figures argue that in 2007, as Brown succeeded Blair, debate was suppressed. In 2010, as Ed and David Miliband vied for the leadership, the brothers pulled their punches.
Lord Hutton, who held a number of senior roles including defence and business secretary under Tony Blair, said Labour could only win again “by taking a very careful look at ourselves and asking ourselves some very important questions about our nature and our characteristics as a political party”.
He suggested long-term shadow cabinet favourites should stand aside to allow younger challengers to fight for the right to try to make the opposition an electoral threat to the Tories.
The leading Blairite said on BBC2’s Newsnight that the “bitter” defeat at the polls had set the party back 30 years, blaming the lack of public appetite for an “old-school socialist menu”.
Alastair Campbell, the former Labour communications chief, made a similar point, calling for a big discussion. He wrote: “After a result as awful as this, there has to be real deep soul-searching and honest analysis about how and we have gone from being a party identified as the dominant force across UK politics over a decade and more, to where we are today.”
The message was hammered home by Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister. He said the result asked “big questions about our message, our appeal and how to build a winning coalition. The truth is, in Labour-Tory marginals which decide ultimately who gets to govern, we made virtually no headway.”
He added: “We moved away from New Labour somewhat in 2010 and we lost that election and if there was one thing Ed Miliband was clear about, he was turning the page on New Labour even more emphatically than Gordon Brown was, and we see the results even more emphatically last night.
“We don’t just need a new person at the top of the Labour party, we need a new argument, too. We will always be the people of the lower paid, but we need to be more than that and be the party of the aspirational family that wants to do well. We need to speak about wealth creation and not just wealth distribution.”
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