Politics interview: “I’m Labour’s biggest critic”

Ed Miliband warns his MPs against complacency
April 24, 2012
Ed Miliband: comfortable talking political theory on the sofa in his office, but the real test is at the ballot box

Ed Miliband laughs with incredulity when asked if he will definitely be Labour leader come the next general election. “You’re asking me that?” As if there were anyone else to ask, he and I both glance at his spin doctor. It’s just the three of us in the vast office of the leader of the opposition at the back of Parliament.

“Yes,” Ed replies, chuckling. “Yes.”

And if he felt at any point between now and then that someone else were better placed to get a better result, would he step aside? “Doesn’t arise,” he interrupts. “Honestly doesn’t arise.”

Miliband has reason to say that now, having seen off two bouts of speculation about his ability to lead the party, last summer and at the turn of the year.

After a torrid month for the government, and a backlash against the Budget and electronic surveillance, 61 per cent of people surveyed in a Populus poll for The Times on 17th April said the government is doing “badly.” The same poll gave Labour a nine-point lead over the Conservatives, a wider gap than at any time since the coalition came to power two years ago. Under Miliband, the opposition is consistently beating the Tories in the polls.

Yet Labour is also reeling from its defeat in the Bradford West by-election of 29th March, where it suffered a 37 per cent swing to George Galloway’s Respect party. We meet a fortnight after the result, in which Labour’s share of the vote was 20 per cent lower than in 2010 under Brown.

Britain has yet to be inspired by Miliband. In a recent poll, 41 per cent more people disapproved of his leadership than approved, better than Nick Clegg’s rating but worse than David Cameron’s. Labour’s performance will be tested in local elections across England and Wales, where the party is predicting some successes, and in the growing debate over Scotland.

Yet for all the turbulence of recent months, Miliband is more upbeat than on any of the occasions we have met in the past 12 years, insisting that Labour is doing “a lot better” under his leadership.

He says he has learned lessons from the defeat in Bradford West. “I don’t think we did take [Labour support] for granted in Bradford,” he says. But asked if Labour needs to revive the art of street politics, he loudly agrees: “Definitely!” Miliband warns his MPs against complacency even in “safe” Labour seats. “This [grassroots approach] is particularly essential in our safe seats, in Labour seats… Sometimes in marginal seats they’re more contested or they have been more contested. There are lots of Labour MPs in safe seats who do great things, but it’s a constant reminder to people about being rooted in community.”

Miliband has enlisted the help of Arnie Graf, who trained a young Barack Obama as a community organiser. “His basic point is the Labour party has to be an organisation that doesn’t just fight elections—of course that’s important—but one that changes things on the ground. It’s also a basic point about the way you mobilise people with person-to-person contact with Labour members… And it’s partly about saying to people, ‘Why did you join the Labour party? Why do you want to be involved? What do you want to do?’ It ties in with what David is doing with the ‘Movement for Change’,” a grassroots campaign championed by the older Miliband, David, since the leadership contest in 2010.

For all the past grumblings among some Labour MPs about the leadership, there is no sign of an appetite to change leader, nor does Labour have a record of doing so.

Yet in an indication of David Miliband’s own lasting ambition, he has neither quit the House of Commons nor agreed to join his sibling’s front bench. Can Ed persuade him to serve more visibly? “Look, he is serving. He is serving in the way that he thinks is best… I totally respect that decision. He made the right decision for him, his family, the Labour party—what he feels was the right decision. The position hasn’t, you know, changed on that.”

The next big political test will be the London mayoral race, coinciding with local elections on 3rd May. The capital was a Labour stronghold until 2008 when Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone to the mayoralty. Livingstone is now fighting to get his old job back, but trailing the Tory candidate in the polls. Some in Labour warn that a Johnson re-election spells crisis for Miliband. Off the record, some close to the Labour leader are cool about Livingstone, pointing out that he became the party’s candidate for mayor before Miliband became leader.

In public however, Miliband lavishes praise on Livingstone; on the day I interviewed him he put his arm around Livingstone to comfort the candidate as he cried during a press screening of his own election broadcast. “I don’t think you can reduce this to the impact on individuals,” says Miliband. “It’s about the people of London—that’s why this election matters, that’s why Ken cares about what happens, that’s why I care about what happens. We’ve got a task to persuade Labour voters to come out for Ken, and Tories and Liberal Democrats and others—undecideds. But you know I think he is winning the battle of ideas in this campaign… he’s been the underdog throughout. I think the reason he’s in the race and competitive is because of his ideas, and, you know, we’ll see.”

Also as we meet, a row has broken out over alleged attempts by Labour high command to block sitting MPs from standing as mayors in other cities. In Birmingham, Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart have joined the former minister Siôn Simon in fighting to be the Labour candidate. The party argues that MPs should be barred from standing in order to encourage a fresh crop of local politicians. But it has been criticised, including in a Guardian editorial, for seeking to avoid by-elections. This is the only subject on which Miliband will not comment.

There are two core problems that make Miliband’s job inherently harder. The first is in the anatomy of his victory in the leadership contest. David won among party members and MPs; Ed owes his victory to the third group that completes Labour’s electoral college: the trade unions. Blairite critics have said this ties his hands on party funding. The Conservatives are exposed on this issue following recent “cash for access” revelations. But to the advantage of the Tories, Miliband had refused to call for a cap on union donations.

I put it to him that if he did so, he would precipitate reform across the parties by forcing the Tories to cap their own donations, from millionaires. He looks up at the ceiling thoughtfully, and says “um” before pausing, as if considering the idea. But he doesn’t bite. “I think that people who try and equate individual union members making a decision to help fund the Labour party, to [Tory donor] Michael Ashcroft… I think there’s a false equation in this.”

Four days later on 15th April, however, Miliband uses a BBC television interview to announce that he will cap all donations, including from the unions, at £5,000 per person. The plan had been carefully formulated for several weeks, according to party officials. It appears that Miliband made up his mind to go ahead with it on the day that we spoke.

The second hurdle faced by Miliband is the need to justify the way in which he defeated his own brother to the leadership. Ed won because he stood to the left of David; he distanced himself from more of New Labour’s record in government than his brother; he also opposed the invasion of Iraq which, as Galloway’s victory shows, can still sway voters, even now. Excessive caution and a move back to the centre would invite the question, what was the point of his challenge? Miliband has sought to answer his critics with his own brand of leftist populism that has on occasion wrong-footed the prime minister.

Miliband’s most radical move came last summer, when he led the charge against Rupert Murdoch in the wake of the phone hacking affair. By criticising Rupert and his son James, Miliband broke from New Labour’s love affair with News International. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, courageous in other ways, has admitted privately that he wouldn’t have done it. And it is possible that David Miliband, who allowed himself to be portrayed as the “Blairite” candidate in 2010, wouldn’t have, either.

“It’s a lesson isn’t it? It’s a real lesson, for all politicians,” says Miliband. It is an example of the idea that “orthodoxies are truths which everybody believes are just unbreakable, until they are broken. And when they are broken you can’t find anybody who thinks it was wrong. Look, it’s an interesting lesson about how you can change the terms of debate.”

Miliband links this approach to the rest of his leadership. “It goes back to what I’m trying to do on responsible capitalism, and what I was trying to do in the party conference speech last year, which some people liked and some people didn’t like, I think it’s fair to say.” His speech, the theme of which was the need to address “vested interests” from the super-rich to energy and train companies to media owners, was more of an intellectual policy seminar than a speech with TV-friendly sound-bites. “I did something which you don’t normally do as an opposition leader. You could have just gone along and said the Tories are really crap—and I do think they’re really bad.”

But, he says, the “task of an opposition leader” is “to have an analysis of where Britain is and what needs to change about it. You’ve then got to be able to turn it into something meaningful in politics. This is a Labour party with a clear sense of how Britain needs to change, which is embodied in responsible capitalism instead of the irresponsible capitalism we have.

“It is a big political project, about how you change the country and how you change the economy. It is not easy, it is not going to happen overnight, but it is a big and important new direction for the Labour party.”

Unlike many in his party’s upper ranks, Ed Miliband has always rejected the common view of Cameron as a “moderniser” and a centrist. His starting point is that “the Cameron project has been exposed as essentially hollow. It was ‘hug a hoodie’ and cut youth services, hug a husky and betray the environment.” He claims that right up until George Osborne unveiled the Budget in March, “I couldn’t believe they were going to cut the top rate of income tax, because it’s so at odds with the claimed project.”

Miliband says he is determined to implement real changes to his party’s approach, both to key policy areas and to organisation on the ground. He portrays himself as one of the biggest critics of the Labour government in which he was a key player.

“People sometimes say to me—Labour party members will say—‘why are you talking about the things we got wrong…’ I think I’ve been the most critical of our record perhaps of any of the leadership candidates apart from Diane [Abbott]. And I continue to be a critic. Not because I don’t think our record is good—I’m very proud of our record—but because if you’re going to win back trust, you’ve got to be open and honest about the things you think you’ve got wrong.”

Miliband extends his criticism of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years to its handling of the economy before the 2008 financial crash. He has previously attacked Labour’s close relations with big business and its failure to regulate the City of London effectively. Now he adds that “even before the financial crisis, the economy wasn’t working for most people. It was working for a few at the top but it wasn’t working for most people. People thought ‘do you really understand what’s happening to us?’ That was the thing I think people thought we didn’t understand properly. They thought ‘we are being squeezed.’

“So the task for us is to show we understand we’ve got to change our economy. That’s right because the social democratic project is not just about spending more money. It’s about changing the way your economy works. And that’s what responsible capitalism is all about. It’s particularly important because other routes to social justice are more limited.”

Since the turn of the year, Miliband and Balls have repositioned the party to acknowledge the deficit and the need for public spending cuts, by talking of social justice “in tough times” and “when there is less money around.” Now, he risks angering supporters on the left by questioning one of the party’s key tenets. He talks of “social justice not just after the fact through redistribution.” And, he adds: “Redistribution is important but it’s not the only route to social justice.”

Ed is comfortable talking political theory on the sofa in his office, but the real test is at the ballot box. In Scotland last year, Labour suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in its history. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) won his first overall majority. The Scottish situation presents Labour with a potential catastrophe. If Salmond were ever to succeed in winning independence, Labour would struggle to win general elections in England, which is overwhelmingly Tory-inclined, meaning that Labour might even be wiped out as a national electoral force.

Yet Miliband does not always appear fully to “get it” about Scotland. As Prospect reported in March, a communication from Downing Street to the leader of the opposition’s office, calling for a meeting to discuss the best strategy to stop Salmond, went unanswered. Now, when I ask Miliband if he will help Cameron save the Union in what should be a cross-party campaign for the UK as we know it, he laughs again. “I think saying ‘help Cameron,’ well I don’t know, I don’t think that’s the best—without being flippant about it I don’t think that’s the best strategy to help the United Kingdom.”

Comments like that sometimes add to the sense that Ed Miliband is happiest in the partisan knockabout of the Westminster village. Eventually he says, a little limply: “I’m going to play my part in the Scottish campaign for the United Kingdom.” He warms to his theme, as if remembering it. “You have to take Alex Salmond on at what he thinks is his strongest argument, which is that he wants Scotland to be a sort of Swedish beacon in the North Sea. I think it’s a rubbish argument, because if you want to create fairness across Scotland you’re best off doing it in the United Kingdom. You’re much more likely to get it. You avoid a race to the bottom on tax rates. In an interconnected UK it’s much easier to create fairness across borders.”

He accuses Salmond of “a very narrow concept of social justice, because it says social justice for Scots stops at the border. Now, what does that mean? Do Scots care about people who are poor in Wales or children who are born in the east end of London? Yes I think they do… So I think what I’ve learned about this is you take Salmond on over what he thinks is his strongest ground, which is what is better for the working people of Scotland.”

Miliband’s biggest challenge of all, of course, will come on the next general election day. He will not be drawn on whether Labour could form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. As he plays the “hypothetical question” card, I remind him that he has repeatedly said on the record that this will be a “one term” coalition. But on the question of a reunification of the Labour and Liberal movements for which some, including Miliband, fought in the immediate aftermath of the last general election, Miliband is not biting. He will only say: “Look, you go into a general election to win it.”

Finally, asked about claims that he lacks the “X Factor” to become prime minister, that people find it hard to envisage him in front of Number Ten, Miliband is thoughtful. “I think there’s a sort of—how do I put this—I think there’s a sort of conventional wisdom issue here. You know, I was a 33-1 outsider to win the leadership [before he stood]. I think there’s a sort of conventional wisdom, and I always think, a bit like on Rupert Murdoch, let’s not believe the conventional wisdom. I stick to doing what I believe is the right thing.

“You listen to what people have to say but in the end the thing that I’ve learned most in this job is you do it your own way. We’re a party that lost badly two years ago. We’re a party doing better, with further to go, and I’m the first person to acknowledge that.”