Ed Miliband: 'Cameron is the last gasp of the old guard'
Britain needs new leadership after the Leveson inquiry revelations and the eurozone crisis. Jane Merrick meets Ed Miliband
When Ed Miliband entertained France's future president François Hollande in his Commons office in February, the state of play in British politics was somewhat different than it is now.
Labour and the Conservatives were level-pegging in the polls, and the twin crises caused by George Osborne's shambolic Budget and Jeremy Hunt's dealings with the Murdoch empire were yet to happen. The two centre-left opposition leaders struck common cause, over roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, on how to wrench Europe from the grip of austerity.
Today, with Labour's lead in double figures, at the end of a week in which the most senior figures in British politics were forced to explain themselves before Lord Justice Leveson, David Cameron has been badly bruised by the revelatory "in this together" text from Rebekah Brooks. This week in Mexico, world leaders will use the latest gathering of the summit season to try once again to crack the eurozone crisis.
Miliband sees a link between the events of the past week at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand and the G20 summit: between a Prime Minister who got too close to the interests of a media giant – a symptom of a broken politics – and of a desperate battle to save the Spanish and Greek economies from a position of "collective austerity" – a symptom of a broken global economy.
Since their lunch in February – when, incidentally, the Socialist leader was snubbed by Mr Cameron – Miliband and the now French President have agreed to host a conference of European centre-left leaders which will seek to release the "grip of centre-right austerity", as the Labour leader describes it, and herald a new order of growth.
He says: "When you look at Cameron, he represents the last gasp of the old. It has becomes much clearer now, in relation to the way he's thinking about the economy, that he looks like somebody who's beached. I don't think that's wishful thinking. I think that's a reality. I think the British people are pretty generous. I think they thought, 'let's give him the benefit of the doubt'; now they're thinking, 'well you promised change and things are getting worse, not better'."
Miliband, sitting in the same green armchair in which he chatted to Hollande back in February, appears more at ease than he was exactly a year ago, during an interview with The Independent on Sunday, when he appeared stifled by the offstage presence of his brother, David. Since then, while there have been periods of serious crisis and doubt – before Christmas, some MPs and activists despaired at his performance – Miliband has become a more confident leader of his party, emboldened by his successful call for an inquiry into press standards, his conference speech theme of "predators versus producers", now widely copied, and a decent poll lead. He has even attempted to turn an apparent weakness, the way he looks, to his advantage by acknowledging his resemblance to the character Wallace. But is Miliband really a new man?
The past three months have been disastrous for the Government, so it would be extraordinary if the Labour leader was not doing well. And the critics inside his party are still there. One Blairite compares Miliband's fortunes to those of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher battled major crises, suffered terrible poll ratings and yet Kinnock never won an election because he was, simply, not electable.
Miliband, speaking before his party's national policy forum in Birmingham yesterday, acknowledges there is no "overnight solution" to restoring faith in Labour among the electorate. "I think there is a long, painstaking process of people thinking, 'actually, Labour has got some good ideas – Labour is making realistic promises about the country'."
Jon Cruddas, his new policy chief, has helped develop plans for a British investment bank, a huge grass-roots campaign for Labour community organisers to reach out to people who have never voted for the party before, and more ideas under the title of "rebuilding Britain". But doesn't Miliband need a high-impact move to cut through to people on a national scale, as Tony Blair did with Clause 4? One of Miliband's vulnerabilities is his reliance on the unions: personally, because they secured his election over his brother (which still smarts with Blairites), and, as a party financially on its knees, because during the last parliament the unions helped Labour to the tune of £30m.
Miliband refuses to agree to a Clause 4 moment against the unions, but insists that his plans for a cap on donations would hit funding from "the brothers". But he was willing to intervene in a row sparked by the GMB union, which last week suggested expelling Progress, the Blairite wing, from the party. Miliband says he is "not in favour" of any such proposal. "Progress is a good organisation, and I spoke to a Progress conference a few weeks back. I'm for a Labour Party that's reaching out to all people and all organisations, not having fewer associations."
Yet he insists that the three million union members affiliated to Labour are "the most underused asset in British politics" and that they should be "part of our deliberations at the local level".
Following his own appearance at Leveson last week, Miliband says that Leveson is doing a good job, but he adds: "We cannot let the whole process of the inquiry be set up then let it dribble away. This cannot be another report that gathers dust on the shelf. It's got to be meaningful and make change happen."
He says that Cameron has been "tainted" by his association with Murdoch and Brooks – "I didn't get a text from Rebekah Brooks like that" – while his failure to sack Hunt is "bad for the reputation of politics – people think they can get away with anything".
As he talks about his pitch to help to lead the new centre-left resurgence, and about changing politics post-Leveson, he looks as if the weight of his brother's brooding presence from the sidelines has been lifted.
In his mini-reshuffle last month, did he talk to David about coming into the Shadow Cabinet? "He sort of took a view some time ago that, for the foreseeable future, he's not – he's got his own contribution to make. He did a lot on youth unemployment, for example. He doesn't want to come back to frontbench politics for now and I totally respect that."
Today, Father's Day, it will be happier families in the Ed Miliband household. His wife, Justine, and their elder son, Daniel, three, are making him scrambled eggs. "I've already been promised," he says.
There are some restless nights for the Labour leader, but only because 18-month-old Sam, the younger of their two boys, is not a great sleeper. Yet it is Miliband's ease at discussing his young family which is arguably his strongest selling point – a brutal reality in 21st-century politics. Of Daniel, he says: "He's a very well house-trained three-year-old. He likes Hoovering; he likes loading the dishwasher. I wish he could say he takes after his father, but that's totally untrue. He's much more of a new man than me."
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