Can Ed Miliband convince the British public he’s a force to be reckoned with? Hamish MacBain meets the man who hopes to be the new prime minister
In the Labour party HQ, at the back of his office, Ed Miliband is speaking with passion, conviction and authority. Not about any of the policies that he and his party members will be tirelessly presenting to the British populace over the next three months – we will get to those shortly – but instead about American football. We were looking for something lighter to discuss in the interest of loosening him up a bit during today’s photoshoot and, having passed over Better Call Saul, have arrived at the recent Super Bowl, which apparently featured a monumental, history-making last-minute blunder by one Pete Carroll.
No, me neither.
This, though, is the Ed Miliband you are led to expect: a man who, rather than splurting out advisor-prepared monologues on contemporary pop culture, is talking at length about something that he actually has an interest in – even if it is a strange, unorthodox topic for a Briton, and a would-be leader of Britons at that.
The shoot, too, proceeds as you might imagine a shoot would when it involves a man who famously said: “If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.” Ed Miliband is not uncooperative, or awkward, but he is certainly a long way from being a natural in front of the lens. Requests from our photographer for a specific hand gesture or facial expression are met with the physical equivalent of a “no comment”.
The photoshoot is completed quickly.
Two weeks earlier, I arrive in Sheffield to watch Miliband give a speech to, and take questions from, an audience of 200 young people at Sheffield Hallam University (Nick Clegg’s constituency). In the interests of journalistic integrity, I am duty bound to report that, while perhaps not commanding or revelatory, his performance is impressive. More impressive than I was expecting. And impressive mainly because it does not feel like a performance.
Probably like you – and certainly like the lion’s share of the people I talked to about him in the run up to this piece – my impression of Miliband prior to meeting him was formed from pictures of him failing to eat a bacon roll, watching him flounder when being attack-dogged by a TV interviewer (or Myleene Klass), certain phrases that must haunt him (his “weaponise the NHS” zinger in particular) and the press’s lambasting of his policies (or lack of them).
In other words, I thought he was fairly hopeless. Marginally less hopeless than all of his direct rivals, but hopeless nonetheless.
But this afternoon, speaking about his party’s plans at uninterrupted length, and in detail, to a younger, slightly-more-in-awe and less cynical audience than usual, he looks both comfortable and electable. Taking questions in batches of four from the young audience, he answers directly, only utilising the classic politician’s evasion technique once when one of the broadsheet journalists goes fishing for a soundbite about Boris Johnson. I speak to a few of the people present who had asked questions, and they all seem satisfied with his answers.
Miliband also seems satisfied. He says that this type of thing is where he feels his strengths lie, and that he is doing at least one or two events like this every week until 7 May.
“You know, politics has become so manufactured, so play-acted, so controlled,” he says. “What I like about [events like this] – and I think it makes me better as a politician – is that you don’t know what you’re going to be asked. It’s a genuine dialogue with people about things they care about. Sometimes you’ll have good answers, sometimes you’ll have not such good answers, but at least it’s a proper conversation.”
“Proper conversation” will be integral to the Labour party’s campaign. More than once during the time I spend with him, Miliband referred to the kind of events he has just done, not as talks, but as “conversations”. And there are plans for Labour ministers – including Miliband – to do four million doorstep “conversations” over the coming months; the most ever attempted by a British political party.
Which is, you have to concede, a nice, old-fashioned gesture. But is it any more than merely a gesture? Assuming they manage it, and Miliband also manages to speak to, say, 400 people in each of the 12 weeks between now and the election, that makes 4,004,800 people. In other words, a tiny percentage of the population, for a lot of hours logged. Almost all of the hours available, in fact. Is this really the best use of ministerial time?
“I think it is,” says Miliband calmly. “The Tories are a virtual party. They don’t have lots of members; they have lots of money to spend on posters. We have lots of members. We don’t have lots of money, but what we can do is have those doorstep conversations. And there’s something about [their] authentic nature which is important. I’m trying to lead from the front.”
Our interview is scheduled to take place on the train journey back to London. As we walk to Sheffield station, Miliband is filmed by a young man with a cameraphone who shouts, “Yo Ed, you want to spit some lyrics for me?” at him (“Perhaps not ‘spit’,” comes the reply). Further excitement comes in the shape of a brief chat – conversation would be a stretch – with Nick Clegg outside Marks & Spencer.
“I said, ‘I didn’t want to be rude and not come up to you’,” smiles the man who not two hours earlier was mentioning the deputy prime minister in the same breath as ‘decapitation’. “He said, ‘You’ve been rude enough already’. Which I thought was quite a good line, actually.”
It seems congenial, almost. “Well I don’t like the fact that he made these promises and then he broke these promises,” counters Miliband. “I genuinely believe that it undermines trust in all politicians. Because a young person who believed him five years ago will now be thinking, ‘Well, how can I believe another person who’s coming along and making me a promise?’ That’s why you’ve got to get the promises right. That’s why I’ve put this emphasis on, ‘Let’s not make overblown promises, which then don’t get kept.’”
Later, he will stop short of flat-out denying the let’s-face-it-quite-possible outcome of a Labour/Lib Dems coalition emerging from the election. The line he holds, even when pressed several times, is: “I want the first best outcome at this election, and that’s a majority Labour government. We’re some way out from the election at the moment – still over three months. My focus is going to be on winning votes and winning votes for the majority.”
Which isn’t quite a ‘that will never happen’.
Delivering the goods
We board the train. Miliband plus five aides sit in unreserved economy seats. I sit opposite him. I tell him that a large number of people I spoke to ahead of this interview said that they’ll be voting Labour, but only as they think it’s the least-worst option. I wonder if that is enough for him.
“No,” he says. “I want more enthusiasm than that. Obviously I want people to vote Labour, but… what we’re putting together is a plan that speaks to where the country is, which is people thinking, ‘It works for the rich, but it doesn’t work for me.’ And how can we change it – raising the minimum wage, doing something about the private rent situation, addressing the crisis in the NHS, dealing with the scandal of zero hours contracts, building homes again in our country – I think speak to this moment. And it’s not pie in the sky or false hopes. It’s grounded policy, funded policy, with a different direction from this government. And so I obviously want to enthuse people about what we have on offer.”
He does accept, however, that there is mass disillusionment with politics in the UK.
“It’s hard for people to be optimistic about politics, because people feel let down. They think politicians just make promises. Partly, what I’ve got to do is get into government and show we can keep our promises. We can do what we say. There’s nothing more depressing than knocking on someone’s door and them saying, ‘I’m not interested, you’re all the same.’ It’s more depressing than people saying they’re going to vote for another party.”
So he would rather someone he doorstepped voted Conservative than not at all?
“I definitely want people to vote – and I want people to vote Labour, obviously – but it’s really important that we engage people in the election. People criticise Russell Brand, and I don’t agree with his message, but what he’s saying, a number of people are thinking. Which is that politics doesn’t feel like it speaks to them.”
Does he feel disillusioned?
“I’m not disillusioned. I feel incredibly optimistic that we can make a difference to the country. And this election really matters. If you think about this election, there’s a disagreement about where we are now, because the government thinks it’s going pretty well. I don’t agree. There’s disagreement about the future – they’ve got this plan to go back to the 1930s on public spending…”
I interrupt, because this frequently wheeled-out phrase seems, to me, to be exactly the kind of soundbite-led campaigning that people find unsatisfying about modern British politics. Instead, partly on the behalf of the many people I spoke to prior to this piece, I tell him that there’s a general feeling that a Labour government would not differ enough from the coalition.
“There’s a massive difference. We can reverse the millionaires’ tax cuts. We can have a mansion tax on the most expensive homes. We’re going to have banker’s bonus tax and put young people back to work. Those policies alone, what do they say about the difference between us?”
And what would he say to those who think Labour should be more left-wing? That it has veered too far to the middle?
“Lots of people are always going to want you to go further, and I understand that, but we’ve got an election campaign to fight, and going out and doing the sort of thing you saw me do today, the direct conversation, is going to get that across to people.”
He continues. “And also: judge me on what I did as leader of the opposition. Part of it is about policy, but I took on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking, I took on energy companies over their prices, I took on the banks over their practices, I took on the Daily Mail over what it did to my dad. I want to be a prime minster who stands up to powerful forces when you need to.”
It’s all debatable
Much discussion has centred around the fact that David Cameron had refused to participate in the televised debates unless the Green Party is invited (it now is). Miliband is clear on what he thinks is the real reason for this.
“Cameron doesn’t want the debates. And he definitely doesn’t want me to have the chance to debate him either one-on-one or with a number of people. I suppose they worry about me having a chance to get my message over in a direct way.”
I ask whether, particularly as a former secretary of state for energy and climate change, he thinks asking for the Greens to be involved is just posturing.
“It’s posturing on a grand scale. The whole history of him on climate change has been posturing. First of all he put the wind turbine on his roof as though it was the most important thing ever. Then he abandoned it in government as he said, ‘Cut the green crap’, and now he suddenly cares about the Greens. I hope people will see me as someone who sticks to what they believe in. Climate change has been one of the country’s most profound issues.”
Does he think the Greens should be involved?
“That’s a matter for the broadcasters. They’ve got to decide. Because they have incredibly strict rules about who they can and can’t let in. And what I don’t want to happen is them to make decisions which then mean the debates don’t happen. So I’ll debate anybody – if they invite the Greens, I’ll debate them. But it’s got to be their decision. Because we live in a country where, fortunately, actually, I don’t control these debates, it’s for the broadcaster. But I’ll debate whoever they want to. I’ll debate anybody.”
We part company at St Pancras. I leave more convinced by the prospect of Ed Miliband as a leader than when I arrived: a direct result of my very own “conversation” with him. If people meet him, I feel, and spend a decent amount of time talking one-on-one to him, they will also find him a more credible candidate. And this, of course, is his plan.
Still, even if he never slept between now and the election, there are still going to be 60 million-plus people in Britain who won’t be afforded this opportunity. And that is a problem. As much as he might dismiss the superficial, soundbite-led tactics of UK electioneering, he is going to have to participate in it – in mudslinging, in grand, wide gestures – if he expects to win. There is simply not time for him to convince the whole country, one-by-one.
But however he does it, whatever tactics he goes on to employ over the next three months, Miliband deserves to at least be listened to. And not just jeered at.
(Images: Andrew Shaylor/PA)