In the third of our interviews with the party leaders, Stylist’s Lucy Foster sits down with Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party
“If you’re Ed Miliband, you’ve just got my vote for travelling in standard class.” A lady of retirement age is stood in the middle of a train aisle pointing her finger at a tall, dark man with a slight boxer’s nose who is quite obviously the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
“Well, thank you very much,” says the now-confirmed Ed Miliband. She continues to point, while nodding, as she carries on through to the catering car. She’s had her say about the unfair privilege that so often accompanies members of the political classes. Another vote for the Labour ballot box.
“Does that happen often?” I ask, as I scramble over bags to sit opposite him for our scheduled 30-minute interview, on a journey from London to Darlington.
“I like meeting people on trains,” he says. “Particularly as people are very nice actually. There’s no point being a politician if you’re not interested in people and people’s stories. That’s what informs my politics. It’s what people say to you about their lives and what they’re feeling… If you lose the ability to hear what people are saying, I think that’s what makes you out of touch, the arrogance of power and, you know, it’s…”
“Time to do a different job?”
“Time to do a different job. Exactly.”
He looks and sounds tired. I don’t blame him. We both got on this train at 7.30am and now in the flat hinterland between Peterborough and York (also known as Lincolnshire) he’s on his second press interview. I mean, I’m exhausted but here’s a man running for PM. He sits back in his chair while his press team and I faff around with my bags and notes.
I have felt sorry for Ed Miliband in the past. I think he gets a hard time – unnecessarily, I might add. Deciding to run in the Labour leadership contest against his brother, knowing that one of them would probably win and the consequences could be, at worst, catastrophic and at best, awkward, is not something you just shrug off. But still he’s framed as disloyal, the usurper. In 2013, the Daily Mail called his deceased father Ralph, a well-respected academic and Marxist, “the man who hated Britain”. He called them on it and got an apology, but it’s hard to imagine any other politician having that sort of vitriol thrown at their family.
He got knocked for not being married to his partner and mother of his two small children, the brilliant environmental lawyer Justine Thornton (the couple wed soon after Ed became leader in 2011). He gets knocked about eating bacon sandwiches. Jeremy Paxman asks him if he’s OK on national television. So I know if nothing else today I’m meeting a man who’s certainly battle-hardened. But is he tough enough to run the country?
So, how are you going to get women to vote in this election?
By showing the difference that we can make to women’s lives. Women are at the sharp end of so many of the injustices in our society. If you think about low pay, I’ve got plans to raise the minimum wage to more than £8 an hour; zero-hours contracts, the insecurity that comes with that; if you think about caring, women often bear the brunt of caring responsibilities and we’ve got plans to expand nursery provision; and having a decent health- and social-care system is fundamental to our NHS Time To Care Fund [a pledged £2.5billion a year on top of Conservative spending plans].
And then there’s a wider point which is housing. That’s about building more homes but also, I’m very proud that we’re the first party in a generation to say we’ll do something about the private renting sector. We’re going to stop letting agents charging tenants fees, we’re going to have three-year tenancies with predictable rent changes. I think the other point is the gender pay gap – 45 years on from the Equal Pay Act we still don’t have equal pay for work of equal value. There’s another point – I want the government I lead to look like the country that we seek to serve. Something like 40% of our shadow cabinet are women, I want to get to 50%. A third of our parliamentary Labour Party is women – I want us to get to 50%.
The last thing I’ll say, one of the things that I’ve been most impressed with [while being in opposition] is the new feminist movement and campaigning about everyday sexism. That’s an issue that male politicians and female politicians should be talking about. Because what I’ve learned is that while legal change is really important, it is not a substitute for cultural change. And for all of those reasons, I’m a politician who believes in equality. That’s what brought me into the Labour Party, that’s what brought me into politics, and there’s no more pressing issue of inequality and injustice than making sure we have gender equality in our country.
OK. That’s very… comprehensive.
[Laughs] I’m sorry, I’m sorry! [Laughs] I don’t normally give such long answers.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges of any party that comes in to government?
For Labour, it’s showing we can make a difference in a credible way. Because we’re going to cut the deficit every year and balance the books, but I think we can still make a difference. I’m somebody who believes that the role of government is to stand up on behalf of those who have less power against those who have more power. Landlords and tenants is one example; there are lots of tenants who feel, ‘I have no power’, and I’m going do something about that. There are lots of people in really insecure jobs, zero-hours contracts; it’s like 19th-century working conditions in the 21st century and if the government doesn’t do something then it just carries on. So I think the challenges are showing that you can make a difference even in tough times. I think we can.
Some are predicting that the SNP will win the majority of votes in Scotland leaving a dead heat in Westminster. Do you think that the time of majority rule is over?
I’m working for a majority government, that’s what I want and I think that’s what the country needs, I want a majority Labour government.
Why do you think it’s what the country needs?
I think what people really don’t like about this coalition is that it looks like an excuse for breaking promises. So the Lib Dems say, “Well we could have done this but the Tories stopped us,” and the other way round. One of the reasons I want a majority Labour government is I want to say, “This is what we’re going to put before the country and this is what we’re going to implement.”
The Liberal Democrats have taken a kicking over tuition fees. You’ve said you’ll cut them to £6,000. What would you say to critics who say this policy is a cynical ploy to bag the youth vote?
Two things: one, I keep my promises. I made an announcement in 2011 and I think I gave a pretty clear impression I wanted to cut tuition fees. You make a promise, you keep a promise, and that’s why we’re going to cut them to £6,000. But we’re also going to do it because I don’t think young people should leave university burdened with £44,000 of debt. But it’s also an issue for parents and grandparents as well. I meet lots of people who, when I do my People’s Question Time, say, “I’m about to send my two kids to university,” or, “I’m worried about my granddaughter,” so it’s not just a young people’s issue. But also, do we make the young pay the price of hard times? I sometimes say, you judge the future of a society by how it treats the young, and you judge the dignity of a society by how it treats the old.
For women, there are so few female role models. How do we get more women in top jobs?
Well Parliament and politics is really important in this – we have to lead from the front. I think it’s been a really interesting cultural change in the Labour Party because when Harriet Harman came into Parliament [in 1982], I think I’m right in saying that 3% of MPs were women and while we haven’t yet got to 50%, we’re the closest [out of the parties]. We’re doing well in our targets because we’ve got all-women shortlists. It changes Parliament; it changes the issues that are talked about. I mean goodness knows, we’ve got to change the atmosphere of Parliament – it still seems like lots of blokes shouting at each other.
Can we get on to PMQs quickly…
It’s a glorious success, Parliament’s PMQs, isn’t it?
Is it the worst part of your job?
I think it’s the worst part of politics because it’s such a terrible advert for it.
Does anyone actually like it?
I don’t know. I think there’s a team sport element to it but I think Cameron has brought it to a new low actually because it’s so abusive. The reality is that it’s been a problem for a long time and I don’t have any easy solution. The one solution that I do have is a People’s Question Time that I’m going to do in the Palace of Westminster regularly, alongside PMQs. Just to put it into context, when I first became an MP, there was this movement to have a Youth Parliament sit in Westminster and this old lag said to me, “You can’t have that, how will they behave?” And now the Youth Parliament does sit in Westminster and it behaves much better than us. So what I want to do is have this People’s Question Time, and people will say, “Hang on a minute, they’re ordinary people, they’re not braying and doing all the things that people do at PMQs.”
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?
David Cameron saying, “Calm down, dear.” By this point, we’re coming into York and people are getting up to leave. Another chance for a well-wisher to say hello. This time, it’s a university lecturer. “Good luck,” he says, as he extends his hand. “Thanks very much,” says Ed, and they start talking about higher education. It strikes me how normal this is, this interaction with everyday people, the fact there’s no ‘them and us’. Here’s Ed Miliband on one of his missions around the country, using time in between to talk to journalists about his beliefs and voters about their lives. My overwhelming impression is of a deeply earnest man who genuinely cares, who really, really means it.
How can we get educated, intelligent women back into work after they have a family so they’re not, and I paraphrase Nigel Farage, out of the race and that’s just the way it is?
It’s shocking, isn’t it? I met some of the original Made In Dagenham workers and it is terrible that we are 40-odd years on and looking at not nearly enough progress. It’s a few things: first of all, we have to change the culture of work because I think if the expectation is 12-hour days, you don’t see your kids. For women who are often the primary carers, that’s going to be a massive problem. Secondly, we keep pressing forward on what we can do on leave and pay. Thirdly, we’ve got to have men taking their share of the load and that’s why expanding paid paternity leave to a month – our plan, Father’s Month – is a good thing, because I think it sends a signal that it isn’t just women’s responsibility. I think that is quite a good corrective.
Most of our readers can’t buy a home. We’re a generation facing up to a standard of living below that which we were brought up with. What are you going to do?
I know. We’ve got to build more homes. There has been chronic under-building under governments from both parties, quite frankly. We said we’re going to get to 200,000 homes a year in the next Parliament, more than there’s been in a generation. But I think I want to get back to this private renting point because, while people are looking for somewhere to buy, we’ve got a private renting sector that feels out of control; sub-standard housing often, tenancies that can be stopped at the drop of a hat, letting agents charging tenants thousands. It’s time to shake up the private renting sector and start to have a fair deal for people and build more homes. There’s just no substitute for actually getting Britain building again.
If people vote for impressions, what impression is the Labour Party trying to give?
The impression that I would want to give is decency, because that is incredibly important to me. The ability to reach out and represent people from all backgrounds, not just the richest of our society. I think the ability to listen is important and then a willingness to stick to your principles. The moments I’ve been proudest of when I’ve been leader are standing up to Murdoch over phone-hacking, standing up to the Daily Mail when they attacked my dad. It is standing up to the energy companies over prices, the banks, the powerful. It’s easy to stand up to the people who don’t have power, it’s hard to stand up to the people who do.
The quick questions
Ed Miliband on life’s (mostly) unimportant topics
If you had to be stuck in a lift with either Obama, Merkel or Putin, who would you choose?
Well, I think I would choose President Obama because the Secret Service would get us out of the lift quickly.
How do you feel about the way the media’s portrayed you? Is it hard not to take it personally?
They’re all incredibly nice about me; I can’t think what you’re referring to. [Laughs]
But sometimes you must find it funny?
Sometimes I do. The Mail On Sunday serialised this book by the former Mayor of Doncaster and it had everything from me being a secret Muslim to me knowing about the financial crisis a year before everyone else did and refusing to tell anybody. So sometimes it gets to be satire rather than anything else.
Like bacon-sandwich-gate, do you just laugh and…
It’s a great success. [Laughs] Listen, I think if I had my time again I wouldn’t eat a bacon sandwich live on screen. But you have to rely on the wisdom of people. People are smarter than the media gives them credit for. People think, “What is actually going to make a difference to my life?” [The election] is not a bacon-sandwich-eating competition. I probably wouldn’t win if it was.
Lord Ashcroft did a poll and apparently the beverage that people most think you’re like is crème de menthe.
[Incredulous] What does that mean exactly? I don’t know. But I’m not even a crème de menthe drinker!
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Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images