The Guardian reports: Ridiculed b.y the right, despaired of by the left, the Labour leader faces the fight of his life. Can he win it? Simon Hattenstone joins him on the election campaign trail to hear about family rifts, his vision for Britain and bacon sandwiches.
Haverstock school, north London, 84 days to go
Haverstock is a stark, modernist building facing Chalk Farm tube station. While David Cameron’s alma mater is Eton, this inner-city comprehensive is Ed Miliband’s; he’s returning today to talk to students and announce his plans for education under a Labour government. Haverstock is a warm, caring school, in which more than 60 languages are spoken.
I’m looking forward to seeing Miliband talking to students, but when I arrive, the hall is full of adult Labour supporters, TV cameras and journalists, a tiny corner allocated to pupils. There is something slightly diminished about Miliband as he walks on to the stage. The wave is small and apologetic, his hand barely rising above waist-level. He talks competently, telling the crowd what they want to hear – that unlike the Tories, Labour will not cut spending per pupil in real terms. But when he takes questions from the audience, there is a new confidence – he’s warm and funny, relaxed.
The gathered media aren’t interested in his rose-tinted memories. They want to know about tax dodgers. The previous day in the Commons, Miliband had accused former Conservative party treasurer Lord Fink of tax avoidance and talked about “dodgy” donors. Lord Fink had responded by saying he would sue Miliband if he used the word dodgy again without parliamentary privilege.
“Do you think it’s dodgy to do what’s called in the trade a deed of variation, to leave your house to your children? That, too, avoids tax,” asks the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson.
The audience boo at the question. They’re here to talk about education, and they know exactly what Robinson is referring to: years ago, Miliband’s mother gave her two sons a stake in the family home. But on the off-chance they don’t, Miliband explains. “You probably know this is a question directed at me personally. It’s something my mother did 20 years ago, a decision she made. Let me just say this – I paid tax as a result of that transaction and have avoided no tax. No doubt the Conservative party wants to smear mud, but to be frank it’s not going to work.”
Miliband takes other questions, but there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind.
“ITV, Carl Dinnen. Do you think tax avoidance is dodgy? Do you think people shouldn’t avoid tax in any way?”
“Sophy Ridge, Sky News. Could we just be clear that you now don’t believe Lord Fink’s tax affairs are dodgy?”
“Gary Gibbon, Channel 4 News. I want you to define for us this word dodgy.”
“Boo!” shout the audience. “Ridiculous! What a silly question!”
Miliband tells the audience to be patient. “It is the media’s job to ask questions of politicians. It’s right that they do. It’s part of what we value about our country.”
I talk to a couple of Miliband’s former teachers, standing towards the front of the room. Kate Myers taught him integrated humanities when he was 11 and 12. “He was delightful,” she says. “Funny, witty clever.” Did he stand out as a future leader? “Oh no. He was interested, he wrote well and had interesting views, but he didn’t stick out as exceptional.”
‘He was delightful,’ a former teacher says. ‘Funny, witty clever.’ Did he stand out as a future leader? ‘Oh no’
Chris Dunne, who taught him English A-level, agrees. “I never trust anybody who says they always saw it. With Churchill, they thought he was a dunce, didn’t they? But I do remember a very personable, intelligent, inquiring young man. And that’s how he strikes me now – as a thoughtful politician who seems to be avoiding a lot of the Punch and Judy of politics. He’s trying to represent the country with well-thought-out views and policies, which don’t always sound as burningly radical as people might like, but he seems to be being true to himself. He’s always made it clear he’s not going to be a dazzling performer.”
Dunne remembers a boy who was always looking to learn. “I’m very interested in politics myself. I used to ring the radio station LBC, and there was a guy called Brian Hayes who ran these fantastic phone-ins. You only gave your first name, so I’d be ‘Chris from Hackney’. One day in class, Ed said to me, ‘Was it you I heard on the radio the other night?’ and I said yeah. He asked, ‘How d’you get on to that?’ and I said, ‘Well, you just phone in, and you might have to keep phoning, and you’ve got to be interesting and prepared to defend yourself, because Brian Hayes will eat you alive if you don’t.’ And sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I was doing some marking, had the radio turned on, and there’s Ed talking to Brian.”
It turns out to be another typical Miliband day. It’s rare someone doesn’t roll out an image of the opposition leader slack-jawed, startle-eyed. If there’s nothing new, there are always those alarming pictures of him doing battle with a bacon butty. Meanwhile, those on the left say he hasn’t the courage of his convictions. Today, Miliband has made a popular pledge on education spending, taken a stance against tax avoidance – and been proved right, when Lord Fink backs down after telling a journalist that “everybody” avoids tax. And yet the next day’s Daily Mail splash is “Red Ed The Tax Avoider”.
Lincoln, 78 days to go
I am sitting on a train at King’s Cross station in London, looking out the window. It’s leaving any minute, and Miliband’s team aren’t here yet. Do they always leave it this late? I see a small group strolling along, a tall, handsome man at the centre. I do a double take. It’s Ed Miliband. He looks so different from the man I’m used to seeing on TV, the one with the unfortunate facial expressions. He even looks different from the Miliband I saw at Haverstock – taller, easier in his skin.
They board a different carriage, and his spin doctor Bob Roberts gives me a ring: Miliband would like to meet. He greets me warmly, as if we are old friends. He wants to know what I’ve been up to, who I’ve been interviewing, who’s going to be the next editor of the Guardian. I tell him that we met once before, years ago – he was sitting next to me at a Hay festival dinner for Al Gore, on his climate change tour. “Really?” he asks. No, he doesn’t remember and doesn’t pretend to. He’s got a bad cold and sounds more adenoidal than ever. (His squashed boxer’s nose is the result of a 2011 operation for sleep apnoea, not, as is often said, to cure his nasal voice.) Two things strike me from our brief encounter. First, this is a man who can’t act, and acting can be a great gift for a politician. Second, there is a winning boyishness to him – he’s serious, intense, guileless.
In Lincoln, a local party worker drives us to a youth centre and on the way we talk about his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. Ralph died when Ed was 24, and he’s a subject that comes up again and again over the next couple of weeks. His father has been much misunderstood, Miliband says. He was a utopian, an idealist, but in practice anti almost everything: nothing lived up to his ideals. “His politics were complex. He was never a member of the Communist party. He certainly wasn’t a Stalinist. He was always pretty sceptical of the Soviet Union. He went there in the 60s and came back shocked because there were no coffee shops.” As far as Ralph was concerned, any self-respecting revolution should start in a coffee shop, so the Soviet Union was ruled out as a template for change.
Ralph had an on-off relationship with the Labour party. He would join, then leave. In the early 60s, he was a member of a splinter group called Victory For Socialism. He briefly considered standing as a Labour MP, before quitting again. Even though his father spent most of his life at odds with the party, Miliband says, he would always vote Labour and often canvassed for them.
Miliband, 45, remembers a home that was often full of radicals – South African anti-apartheid campaigners, Tony Benn, Tariq Ali – and yet he says Ralph was not an outgoing man. “My dad loved his family dearly. He wasn’t a particularly sociable person. He was quite… fixed in his views.” Miliband grins. “He took his views and where you stood on the political spectrum incredibly seriously.” His mother Marion was very different. “My mum was warm, patient, selfless.” He corrects himself. “Is warm, patient and selfless. I’d say her politics are more grounded in the here and now.”
At home, they often discussed politics. “My dad was pretty generous to us, his family, in political disagreement.” Again Miliband smiles. “I wouldn’t say he was the most generous person in political disagreement with other people.” He made an exception for his children? “Yes.” If you weren’t his son, what would your father have thought of your politics? “I think he’d understand the compromises, but he wouldn’t have agreed with lots of things.”
Today Miliband is hosting the latest in a series of People’s Question Times, an informal Q&A session with voters in marginal seats. He prefers a mix of political backgrounds – it makes for a livelier atmosphere – but the audience at the Lincoln Showroom is mainly Labour. This is a marginal seat that his party lost to the Tories at the last election. Again, Miliband gives an apologetic little wave as he walks in. “Thank you so much, ladies and gentlemen. Can I just say, it’s great to be here in Lincoln. I had a shot of pool downstairs and managed to pot the blue, which I thought was actually a good symbol for the future. The 10-year-old I was playing with looked slightly surprised when I took the cue away from him!” There is polite laughter.
He’s desperate for a game of pool. One of his team corners a teenager. ‘Like a game with Ed Miliband?’ ‘No, not really’
“I invited you here not because you’re supporters,” he tells the audience. “In fact, you might have been invited because you’re not supporters. You know, you can watch me and David Cameron shout at each other at prime minister’s questions once a week. It’s not very enlightening. PMQs puts people off politics because no questions are answered. If I don’t answer your questions here, pull me up on it.”
This election is about different visions, he explains. Cameron believes the wealth created at the top of society will trickle down to everyone else. Miliband believes that’s been tried and failed. “I think people see a recovery that might be working in the City of London, that hasn’t reached most kitchen tables. I believe everybody is a wealth creator in this country.” He won’t make promises he can’t keep, just to get into office, he says. “That is the old way of doing things. Dare I say it, the Nick Clegg way of doing things.” The audience are now lapping it up.
He takes three questions and answers them together; by the end of the session, he’s taking half a dozen at a time. “Good question, Julie.” “I’m really glad you asked about that, David.” “You run the food bank, do you, Trevor?” “I thought you spoke incredibly well, Heber.”
A young woman asks a question that turns into more of a statement. “My name is Zoe, I’m on income support, I’ve got a little child of four, I’ve got other kids. Why should we vote for you when it is all broken promises? You’ve got a house, you’ve got a car, you’ve been to college, I’m trying to do all these things, but I can’t.” This gets to the heart of what the sceptics think of Miliband, and about politicians in general: they’ve had it easy – how can anyone relate to them?
Miliband explains what brought him to the Labour party. “The reason I’m in politics is because my parents were refugees from the Nazis. If you’d said to my grandparents that I would be standing here today, as leader of the Labour party, they probably wouldn’t know what that meant, and they wouldn’t believe it. My parents always said, ‘Don’t believe people who tell you politics don’t make a difference’ because for them it was a matter of life and death. My mum lost her dad during the Holocaust. My dad came here in 1940 and was separated from his mum and his sister.”
He reminds the audience of the importance of voting. “Don’t just think, well, he seems like a nice chap, let’s hope he wins, let’s see what happens in 78 days’ time – because this is one of the most important constituencies for the future of the country. People, not politicians, change the world.”
Downstairs, Miliband is desperate for a game of pool. One of his team corners a teenager. “Would you like a game with Ed Miliband?”
“No, not really,” says the boy.
Miliband laughs, and is undeterred. A young woman is happy to oblige and they play a few shots, both potting balls.
It turns out Miliband is obsessed with pool and snooker. On the train back to London, I tell him I ghost-wrote two books for snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan. Miliband’s eyes are on stalks. “Really?” he says. He wants to know everything: how often does he practise, is he friends with Jimmy White? “I watched the famous 1985 final with Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis. My dad let me stay up late. He loved snooker, too. I was desperate for Dennis Taylor to win because I thought Steve Davis was boring. It was terrible how he was called Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis, wasn’t it?”
How would he describe his younger self? “Serious. I wasn’t a rebel, clearly. My dad was 46 when I was born, and I have this pet theory about having an older parent. You don’t rebel if you’ve got older parents. I think I had a sense of my dad’s vulnerability. He had a heart attack when I was three. It’s paradoxical because he was also a very strong person, a dominant person.” Did he scare you? “No! I wouldn’t put it that way. He was a presence.”
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Ed and David with their father Ralph in 1976. Photograph: Courtesy of David Miliband
Although Ralph and Marion were not observant Jews, they were defined by their early life as Jews. It was always there in the background, never articulated. “They didn’t talk about the Holocaust. My mum didn’t talk about what happened to her.” Why? “Too painful. Too painful.”
Can he talk to his mother about it now? “Yes, I have talked to her a bit. I went to Yad Vashem [Israel’s official Holocaust memorial] last year and got more detail about what happened to her dad, and I’ve talked to her about that.” What did happen? “He died in terrible circumstances, in a labour camp in Germany in a small town, on 17 January 1945, just before the end of the war. We didn’t know that until six months ago.”
His parents wanted their two sons to go to a local state school, and Miliband admits he found the transition from primary school to Haverstock hard. He was relatively swotty, into computer games, a Rubik’s cube expert. But he says it was the making of him – he was forced to get on with all sorts of people. Was he ever beaten up? “Not really.” He grins. “I famously had a fight which appeared in the papers – with a guy called Kevin Mustafa.” In a 2011 Mail on Sunday article, Mustafa alleged Miliband “called me a Turkish bastard so I hit him” after they’d had an argument. Was Miliband a good fighter? “No!” he says, as if the answer is obvious. “But I didn’t come out too badly. I think it was honours even.”
Once again, a good day ends on a negative note. Miliband got a warm reception at the youth centre, but now it’s reported that Ant and Dec have withdrawn their support, saying they don’t know what the Labour party stands for any more. (This is a slightly bogus U-turn: Ant voted Tory in the last election.) Declan Donnelly says of Miliband, “I’m not sure I could picture him as prime minister.” Meanwhile, Noel Gallagher has described Labour as a “fucking waste of time”.
Preston, Pendle and Burnley, 76 days to go
We’re on the 8.30am train to Preston. Miliband is visiting BAE Systems in the morning, doing a People’s Question Time in the afternoon in Pendle, and then a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) event at Burnley football club. “Have you heard from Ronnie?” he asks as soon as he sees me. I’m sorry, I say, he’s not been in touch. I explain that O’Sullivan is not very interested in politics. Miliband sounds disappointed.
One of the things you hear repeatedly about Miliband is that he has no side. After his O-levels, Miliband spent a summer working for Tony Benn. His daughter, the writer Melissa Benn, remembers her father talking affectionately about his young assistant. “I would hear about Edward, as he was called then, in very positive and respectful and tender terms. He’s not a player in the way a lot of political people are. I think he’s given a very hard time. I think we’ll look back, a bit like people look back at the way my father was treated in the 1970s and 1980s, and be a little bit ashamed.” Diane Abbott, who stood against both Milibands for the party leadership, calls Ed “a genuinely nice and principled person”.
At BAE, a journalist tells Miliband that an opposition leader has never won when polling as badly as he is. “We should let the polls take care of themselves,” he replies. “I’m really enjoying my chance to be able to take my case to the people, and in the end the people are the boss.” Another journalist asks if he’s seen the latest poll on Britain’s most hated brands. “Yes, I have,” Miliband says with a huge grin. “We’ve beaten Marmite. I think that’s a great achievement. Ukip number 1, Tories number 2, Marmite number 3. And Labour number 5.”
On a walk around the factory, I ask Alan Quinn, a skilled fitter at BAE and Labour councillor for Prestwich, why he thinks Miliband attracts so much hostility. “Because he stands up to vested interests,” he says, instantly. “He stopped a war in Syria, and he doesn’t get the credit for that. He stood up to Murdoch over phone hacking, and obviously Murdoch wants revenge for that, because he didn’t get control over BSkyB. He stood up to the energy companies over the cartel they run. And he’s now standing up to the people who don’t pay their fair share of tax. If Ed Miliband is that useless, why do the press spend so much time vilifying him? I think they see him as a threat, as a man who will stand up for the ordinary people.” In 2011, Miliband became the first political leader to call for an independent review of newspaper regulation and practices, after News International admitted it had failed to conduct full investigations into phone hacking. In July that year he sought cross-party support for a motion that would postpone any deal on BSkyB until the criminal investigation into the News Of The World hacking scandal was complete; a day later, Murdoch withdrew his bid for BSkyB.
Despite the polls, Miliband seems to be gaining confidence. Even the wave is becoming more assertive, the hand moving from waist to head height. At the People’s Question Time in Pendle, an elderly man called Roland makes a short, powerful speech about the sacrifices made for the right to vote and says he’s worried for the future of the NHS. “How old are you, Roland, if you don’t mind me asking?” Miliband says.
“Eighty-nine,” he says.
“Eighty-nine. I think that deserves a round of applause.”
A man called Michael says he doesn’t need a microphone and bawls his question in broadest Lancashire. “£170m worth of cuts are coming out of the social care budget. I wrote to my MP, and I got a letter back today and he’s blamed you.” Everybody laughs.
“Thank you, Michael,” Miliband says, “and you’re right – you didn’t need a microphone.” This gets a laugh, too.
Here in Pendle, immigration is a big issue. “I just want you to imagine you own a cafe and this cafe seats 40 people,” says a man who identifies with Ukip. “If you get 60 people walking through your door, where d’you put them 60 people? If we have 60 million people in Britain, our NHS and education system can just about cope – but if we open the doors and let another few million in, what’s going to happen?” There are a few claps.
“Good question,” Miliband says. “Look, I need to say a few things to you about immigration. I am the son of immigrants. I think immigration has had benefits for this country. Lots of people caring for the NHS have come here from different countries. You’ve got people healing the sick, looking after the old, helping babies to be born, and the NHS wouldn’t be standing up if it wasn’t for all the people coming from other countries.” There is a huge round of applause.
A young woman called Sophie tells Miliband how she left school with three good A-levels, suffered paralysing depression, became anorexic and suicidal. She has seen six GPs, has been discharged by all and is in desperate need of help.
“Sophie, it’s incredibly brave of you to talk about this. Mental health services are the poor relation of the health service in general, and mental health services for young people are the poor relation of mental health services. No wonder you’re faced with the problems you are. Can I talk to you later?”
A couple of hours later, Miliband is at Turf Moor, home of Burnley football club, for the BAME meeting. Everyone wants a selfie and it’s a proper scrummage as they line up for a photograph. Miliband says a few words about why it’s important for Labour to win this election. “If the Conservatives get in, Cameron wants to reduce public spending to 1930s levels, before we had the NHS.”
“God forbid!” shouts a woman in the crowd.
On the train home that night, Miliband seems exhausted and upset. “I was talking to that girl, Sophie. Terrible,” he says. “To have such a sense of hopelessness, bleakness. Awful.”
What’s the hardest thing about campaigning? “Stamina is a challenge. Now, I actually relish the 16-hour days. Not seeing my family is probably the hardest thing.” He takes out his phone and shows me photographs of his two boys, Daniel and Sam, five and four respectively. “Daniel did say yesterday, ‘You’re always on the phone.’ That’s what I worry about. I don’t want to be an absent dad. That’s a challenge in this job, and it’s a challenge if I’m prime minister.”
The hardest thing about campaigning? Not seeing my family
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The Milibands’ Christmas card: Ed, Daniel, Sam and Justine. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
I ask if there was a particular event that politicised him as a boy. “I suppose the first political event I was conscious of was Ruth First, my parents’ friend, who was killed by a letter bomb.” First was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement, alongside her husband Joe Slovo; she was assassinated by the South African police in 1982. Miliband was 12 at the time. “If you have somebody you meet in your parents’ living room and then they get murdered, you think, Christ! These are big things people are fighting for.”
Miliband studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University (dropping the philosophy in his second year), became president of the junior common room and led a campaign against rent increases, and still didn’t know what to do with his life. He worked briefly as a TV researcher, on A Week In Politics. “When I was in journalism, I thought to myself, I feel a bit uncomfortable here. I feel like a partisan. I should therefore go and work in politics.”
He became a researcher for Harriet Harman, who was shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, then Gordon Brown’s special adviser. In 2005, he won the safe seat of Doncaster North and joined his brother in the cabinet, becoming secretary of state for energy and climate change. Ed’s particular skill lay in his ability to bridge No 10 and No 11: Brown would send him to talk to Blair’s team when hostilities were at their peak. Miliband was regarded as the only one among Brown’s expletive-fuelled staff who could talk human; he became known as “the ambassador from Planet Fuck”.
Then Brown stood down, and Ed announced he was running against his brother for the leadership. After the internecine feud between Brown and Blair, this was the last thing most Labourites wanted. There was talk of fratricide, and comparisons were made with Cain and Abel. Ed won by a tiny margin, 1.3%, and thanks to the union vote. (David won the vote among Labour party members and MPs, and led until the fourth and final round.) There was a big falling out, particularly between their partners, who didn’t talk for a time.
Melissa Benn tells me it was a fight that needed to be had within Labour – not so much between Browns and Blairites as between New Labour and newer Labour; the fact that it was between two brothers is irrelevant. “I saw it as an expression of an important argument, and I’ve been amazed by the number of people with their biblical references and dark Freudian ideas. If there had been a different result, it would be seen as a minor footnote in the dramatisation of a particular argument within the Labour party. If David had won, Ed would probably be sitting in his cabinet. But it could not have been a more dramatic result in terms of the human dynamic – a narrow gap, with the younger brother beating the older brother. That’s imprinted on people’s minds now, isn’t it?”
Scarlett MccGwire, who worked with Ed when he was first elected leader, tells me: “He won and suddenly there was hatred. I don’t think he’d ever come across that – waves of hatred from the Labour party, from the David fans. The media were furious and said, you’ve got the wrong brother. You could feel the viciousness. The atmosphere that day in Manchester was terrible. I got shouted at by very senior journalists for being an Ed person.”
Was it worth the backlash? “Yes, I encouraged him to stand. Their politics are really, really different. Ed’s big thing is how to solve inequality. We would be bombing Syria if David was leader. ”
Many of David’s followers believe Labour would be romping home today if he was leader. They argue he is more polished, respected and mature. Some of Ed’s shadow cabinet think the same way: a few months ago, there was an attempted coup when Alan Johnson was reportedly approached by Blair loyalists Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell to replace Miliband. Johnson wasn’t interested.
Standing against David had bigger ramifications for my family, and my relationship with him, than I anticipated
Others think David Miliband would have proved electoral poison, tarnished by his stint as foreign secretary. “I think he would be in a difficult position now, with all the stuff coming out over the CIA and extraordinary rendition,” Diane Abbott says. As for his comparative polish, she doesn’t buy that, either. She reminds me of the time David was ridiculed for being photographed grinning inanely with a banana. “People forget how uncomfortable he could be. The banana skin.”
Is social gaucheness a particular Miliband trait? “No,” she says. “It’s so easy to find an unflattering angle. This social unease is just a trope of the rightwing press.”
The battle of the brothers remains the elephant in the room. Over the course of two weeks with Miliband, there has been no mention of David. I consider bringing him up now but, as so often, it’s not the right moment. Miliband wants light relief at the end of a long day. He starts talking about the great television comedies. Not The Nine O’Clock News was a big one for him. Do I like Larry David? I do. “What happened to series nine? They said they were going to do a ninth series of Curb Your Enthusiasm.” What was the greatest TV comedy ever? I tell him I loved The Larry Sanders Show. “Yes, it was great,” he says. “But the greatest?”
Is he a little bit geeky? He doesn’t like that word. A bit of an anorak, then? Even worse, he says.
I tell him I have a theory. We, the public, hate alpha-male politicians, but we don’t trust them when they aren’t alpha males. Is this a problem for him? “Look, you can disagree without being disagreeable. I’m quoting Obama, actually. I often disagree, but I don’t take delight in being disagreeable. That’s probably where I am like my mum.”
The thing he says he’s learned most since becoming leader is to be himself. It took him a while. Even his team says this: that he was too willing to be moulded into something he clearly wasn’t. Were the bacon sarnie photographs an example? “No!” he says, suddenly exasperated. “I like bacon effing sarnies. I think eating one on camera was clearly a mistake.” Was he trying to convey his secular non-Jewishness? “Nooooooo! I was about to start a long day, and I was hungry.”
What has been the lowest point in his leadership? “I’m not sure there is a standout.” Forgetting to mention the deficit in his autumn conference speech? “Well, quite rightly I kicked myself. But I’m pretty resilient. Kipling was right about triumph and disaster, and the gap between the two being very narrow. The times I have felt less enthusiastic is when I feel, ‘Is that actually what you believe?’ You’ve got to do what you believe. That’s my lodestar. The people who succeed in politics are the people who believe things. Someone once said to me, Cameron has strong views loosely held, and I think that’s a good description.” Have his own convictions come gradually? “No, I’ve always had them. I think they’re clearer now because I’m a mature politician.”
Accountability, he insists, is all all important in a politician, and he has been astonished by Cameron’s unwillingness to defend his record in the televised debates. “If he was really convinced this is an election about leadership, why is Cameron desperate to avoid the leadership debates with me? Desperate. It doesn’t add up, does it? Why wouldn’t he be proposing five debates with me? Of course, he knows they are not going to be good for him.”
I ask him what achievement he is most proud of. “My family. I’m incredibly proud I’m married to Justine and incredibly proud of Daniel and Sam. It’s the most important thing I’ve done.” And as leader? “Standing up to the strong. It’s really easy to stand up to the weak. It’s quite hard to stand up to Rupert Murdoch because it’s not what’s been done.” Did it scare him? “No. I think I knew the day before it would never be the same again. There would be a set of implications.”
It’s late evening, and Miliband’s team seems demob happy. We’re in standard class, as usual, and a couple of people walk up and ask if they can take selfies. Soon, there’s a stream of visitors. Miliband’s advisers stand to allow them to sit next to Miliband and chat. There’s Legho from Nigeria and her four lovely children, the hairdresser travelling with her family, the minted man who’s worried about the mansion tax, three English academics who are doing a bit of freelance counter-terrorism work for the Home Office, the clinical psychologist. “I’m also a sex therapist – that’s the fun part of my job,” she says. Miliband is curious. “Why would that be the fun part?” Before long there’s a party atmosphere. If Ed Miliband could fight the election on Britain’s trains, he’d be home and dry.
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‘I like bacon effing sarnies, and I was hungry. I think eating one on camera was a mistake.’ Photograph: Ben Cawthra/Rex
Battersea Arts Centre, London, 72 days to go
Miliband is addressing the great and the good of the arts world: there’s film director Stephen Frears, novelist Hanif Kureishi, sculptor Anish Kapoor, artistic director Jude Kelly. He is joined on stage by his old boss, now shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman. Miliband points out how few speeches there have been about the arts from prime ministers or leaders of the opposition. “In my research, I did find one from Tony Blair and one by Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister.” Pause. “He ended up closing down the National Theatre and getting rid of Radio 3. I’m not planning to follow in his footsteps.”
It’s a strong speech – fluent, funny, pressing the right buttons. Miliband talks about re-establishing the importance of the arts in education, its contribution to industry, the right of children to be creative. Then it’s time for questions. “And the difficult questions will be answered by Harriet Harman! Why don’t I have a first go, then get Harriet to say what I should have said?”
Afterwards, the audience is served wine. Miliband stands, chats, and abstains. One friend of his told me that when he went round for dinner, they were served wine from a half-drunk bottle that looked as if it had been opened months ago. At one point, I suggest to his team that Miliband and I go to the pub for a drink. “A cup of tea, maybe,” they say. Nigel Farage he is not.
Stephen Frears is chatting to the curator Norman Rosenthal. “Miliband is so much better than he was a year ago,” Frears says.
What was he like then, I ask.
Rosenthal: “Not as focused.”
Frears: “More wooden.”
Rosenthal: “He was warm today, and warmth is very important in a politician. I hope it comes across with other audiences.”
Miliband spots me hovering as he’s talking. “Hey, man, did you enjoy the speech?” I’m so taken aback by him calling me man, I almost don’t hear when he asks if I’ve heard from Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Leeds College of Music, 69 days to go
We’re on the 7.35am from King’s Cross to Leeds. Miliband has work to do on today’s speech about reducing tuition fees from a maximum £9,000 to £6,000 – one of his flagship pledges. I tell him I’ve got good news, and pass him the phone. “It’s not?” he says. “Hello? Hello, Ronnie? Yes, it’s Ed Miliband here. I am such a fan… Yes, I’ve always loved snooker… How are you doing?… And when’s the world championship?… Do you remember the Steve Davis versus Dennis Taylor final? I wanted Dennis to win. Oh, you wanted Steve to win. Yes.” Spin doctor Bob Roberts is looking at his watch, begging me to retrieve the phone: they have work to do. But Miliband is still going. “Would you like a game one day? Snooker or pool? Probably pool best for me. Yes, that would be brilliant.” He’s beaming when he gets off the phone. “What a lovely man. He’s so nice! He said we could have a game.” There is even good news in the polls, which suggest Miliband has 74% chance of becoming PM.
In Leeds, the music students greet Miliband’s announcement about tuition fees rapturously. The louder the applause, the sharper his delivery. His critics are less enthusiastic. Miliband is accused of introducing a regressive tax that will help only high earners. The students don’t see it like that – they say they haven’t got a clue who’ll be earning millions in the future; all they know is, £9,000 a year is a considerable deterrent for many people. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls is on hand to explain the sums; despite all the talk, the two Eds look like a team.
Will Miliband honour his pledge, whatever form of coalition he makes, he is asked.
“Yes, yes, yes.” His eye sockets are dark with exhaustion, but he’s on a high.
It’s the end of the day, and we sit down to talk in a bar. We clink glasses – he’s drinking Coke, me wine. He takes off his tie, a concession to a Friday night. I mention David’s name for the first time. Did they talk a lot about politics when they were young? “Around the dinner table, yes.” Did they disagree often? “Yes.” His voice tightens and he blinks. Miliband rarely talks about his brother, and can’t hide his discomfort. What did they most commonly disagree about? “I wouldn’t say there was a pattern. If you’re saying, can you read what happened later into what we were arguing about or discussing when we were teenagers, I wouldn’t particularly say so.”
As Gordon Brown’s special adviser, he says, his opinions became clearer; he realised they diverged from the New Labour norm. Was there a rift growing between him and David? “Well, I wouldn’t describe it as a rift. You want to be careful about this. You don’t want to exaggerate the differences. I’ve got huge admiration for him, and he’s got very good progressive politics. So it’s a difference of degrees, not absolutes.”
But it was a huge thing to challenge your brother: if the differences were tiny, it just looks like a bad case of sibling rivalry. “OK, don’t do it retrospectively then,” he says. “This is without comment on him, but look at how I’ve moved Labour on from New Labour.” Tell me? “On Murdoch, I’ve moved Labour on. On Syria. On inequality. On the responsibilities of the rich and powerful, and the accountability of companies and corporations. On what I call responsible capitalism, I’ve moved Labour on.”
In terms of inequality, can he explain what he means? “The gap between the rich and the poor – I care about it.” And New Labour didn’t? “Well, it was more that, as long as the people at the bottom are doing OK, does the gap matter? But the gap absolutely matters to me. New Labour were too sanguine about it. The Conservatives don’t care about it.”
David Miliband embraces his brother Ed after losing to him in the battle for the Labour leadership in 2010. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
David embraces Ed after losing to him in the Labour leadership battle in 2010. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images
When he stood against David, did he realise what he was risking? “I knew it was a big decision at the time, but it was an even bigger decision. It had bigger ramifications for my family, and for my relationship with David, than I had anticipated.”
What is their relationship like now? “It’s a massive, massive amount better than it was. Massive. And it’s partly because he’s got his own thing he’s doing in New York, I’m doing my own thing, so that makes it a lot better and easier.”
What was it like at its worst?
Were they talking ?
“Yeah,” he says uncertainly. “But it was difficult. Because you know… the closeness of the result. He obviously felt very bruised.”
Did he resent you?
“Look, I would always say he tried to be incredibly understanding about it, but he felt very bruised by what happened.”
Did he think you wouldn’t win, so it was OK for you to stand? “No, I don’t think so. I think he was always more fearful than I was about what the implications would be.”
If he wins the election, will he invite David back to play a role? “I think he’s doing his own thing. I’ve always said any anticipation of things I might do as prime minister is a measuring-the-curtains question. I don’t do it. He’s doing his job. I’m getting on with mine.”
Has the massive family split been worth it? “Your words, ‘massive split’,” he says. But he doesn’t contradict them. “Do I feel in my heart of hearts it was right? The answer is I do.”
How has the fallout affected their mother? “She’s pretty stoical. She’s been through worse.” What was worse? “I’d say what happened during the second world war.”
A young woman walks up to us and asks if she can take a picture of the two of them together.
“Of course.” He gives her a lovely warm welcome.
“I’ve heard about you trying to reduce tuition fees,” she says.
“And the reason I stopped university is because they were too high.”
“Is that right?” he says.
“So I’m trying to get back because I love languages. I’m working for NHS Professionals.”
“How many years did you do?”
“One. Then they raised it up to £9,000 and that was too much.”
“What’s your name?”
“Harbinder. I like to be called Harby.”
“Harby, nice to meet you.”
We pick up our conversation. The other day, Miliband told me he thought he was unusual for a politician in that he was not arrogant. But perhaps people don’t want modesty in their politicians. “Look, I don’t think decency is a weakness if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve got strong convictions. That does go with the ability to listen, to empathise, to reach out to people. The moment you become arrogant, you stop listening, and when you stop listening, you don’t understand what’s actually happening. If people know me as a decent guy who does things his own way, I think that’s incredibly important.”
But some people are still not sure what you believe, I say. They want a big gesture: an ambitious council housing programme, renationalisation of the railways, scrapping Trident, something to grasp hold of – something that says: this is EdMilibandian. But he’s not playing ball. He’s never been Red Ed, he says. He is a complex politician who deals in subtleties and increments, and he’s not going to pretend to be someone he’s not. “Look,” he says, “if you rescue the NHS, and you raise people’s wages, and you deal with zero-hours contracts, if you build 200,000 homes a year, if you put tuition fees down to £6,000 a year, if you put young unemployed people back to work – if you do all those things, you’re in business.”
What would Ed Miliband’s Britain look like? “A place for everybody in it. There are so many people who feel this country is not for them,” he says passionately. He pauses, his mind running back over all the people he has spoken to in the past couple of weeks. This is the important point for him: forget the big gestures, it all comes down to individuals. “I mean Harby, she’s just an example. The bullshit that is said about tuition fees not putting people off. I mean, just talk to Harby.”