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Ed Miliband stepped down as Labour leader on Friday after the party’s worst general election defeat since Margaret Thatcher’s final victory in 1987.
“This is not a speech I wanted to make,” he said in a Westminster hall just after noon on Friday. “I take absolute and total responsibility for the result.”
The resignation came just hours after shadow chancellor Ed Balls lost his seat in a stunning upset that encapsulated a disastrous set of results for the party.
Labour figures appeared shell-shocked as the results began to come in on Thursday night, showing only a handful of wins — and the loss of almost all the party’s Scottish MPs.
Speaking at the count in his seat of Doncaster North, Mr Miliband said it had been a “very disappointing and difficult” night for his party.
He returned swiftly to London in the early hours and spoke to staff —some tearful — at the party’s headquarters in Brewers Green, Victoria. Soon afterwards he went to 1 Great George Street to give his resignation speech to the television cameras.
Labour won just 232 parliamentary seats, 25 less than it achieved at the last general election under Gordon Brown’s leadership.
In the space of just hours it lost its three most senior personnel: Mr Miliband, Mr Balls and Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, who lost his seat in Scotland.
Mr Balls stood with a fixed, distant expression as the result was announced in his Morley and Outwood constituency in West Yorkshire, where he lost to the Conservatives by 422 votes. He said his personal disappointment was “as nothing” compared with the sorrow he felt at the national result.
It was not long before introspection descended over the cause of the party’s failure.
Lord Reid, a Blairite former cabinet minister, said it had been an “awful drubbing” as a consequence of the party shifting too far to the left. “We were on the wrong side of all the arguments: on economic competence, creating wealth, reforming public services,” he said.
One Blairite figure said the time had come for a new leader from the 2010 generation of Labour MPs.
Mr Miliband and his aides had led the party into a “total defenestration”, he said. “All of these people are essentially finished, in my view: we need something new and radically different.”
There was shock and despondency in Labour’s headquarters in Victoria, London, as the extent of its potential defeat sank in.
“Jesus Christ,” said one party aide. “It’s over. It’s over.”
In a reversal of historic proportions the party lost several senior figures including Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour leader.
Mr Alexander, chair of Labour’s national election campaign, was ejected from Paisley and South Renfrewshire by a 20-year-old Scottish National party student.
Labour took several seats from the Liberal Democrats, including Hornsey & Wood Green, Bermondsey and Redcar.
But it made insufficient headway in crucial Labour-Conservative battlegrounds to counteract the loss of almost all its seats in Scotland.
Among the first results was Swindon North — a Tory-held marginal — where there was a swing of 4.3 per cent from Labour to the Conservatives. In Nuneaton, a crucial marginal, the vote shifted 3 per cent towards the Tories.
The party lost Southampton Itchen, previously held by former cabinet minister John Denham.
One insider said the Labour staffers’ party on Thursday night was a “wake” given the terrible numbers.
A glimmer of relief for the party came in London, where it took Ealing Central and held the super-marginal Hampstead and Kilburn.
Labour’s national share of the vote was 30 per cent, up 1.5 percentage points on last time but nowhere near enough to make the gains it needed to win.
In the English shires the party struggled to shift support from former Tory voters, instead losing ground in many places.
It was the loss of support for Labour in Scotland at the hands of the SNP that fatally damaged the party’s prospects.
“Something akin to an earthquake has taken place in Scotland . . . Politics won’t be the same,” said Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary.
The peer said Labour had been squeezed by “two nationalisms”, referring to the rise in Ukip support in some of the party’s heartlands.
Even before the results of the election, academics had warned that Labour’s woes in Scotland had eradicated the inbuilt advantage that the party used to have over the Tories in national elections.