Ed Miliband: 'Dad indulged me in my Red Sox obsession'

Exclusive interview: The leader of the Opposition talks about a free press, why he backs HS2, and why his wife Justine can't be persuaded to follow baseball. Jane Merrick meets Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband's defence of his late father, Ralph, was the natural reaction of a loving son aggrieved at the Daily Mail's description of "The man who hated Britain". But as a boy, young Ed found himself standing up to his dad to deliver some home truths.

At the age of 12, Miliband spent six months living in Boston with his father, who was teaching politics at the city's university, while mother Marion and brother David were back home in the UK. The politics professor was no gourmet chef: night in, night out, the meal was pasta and cold sauce – sometimes tomato, sometimes ragu, but always stone cold. After a few weeks, young Ed said: "Dad, you are supposed to warm up the pasta sauce." This touching scene of a father and son struggling with domesticity is somehow all the more poignant given his staunch defence of Miliband Snr's memory last month.

Boston was also where Ed developed an obsession with baseball, and the city's team, the Red Sox. Ralph wasn't keen on sport, but took his son to watch them play – "He indulged me really." It was an obsession that has followed him into adulthood. On holiday in Martha's Vineyard with his now wife, Justine, Miliband took her to see the Red Sox play several times, and they lost every game, leaving his girlfriend "slightly at the end of her tether". At a climate summit in 2009, when he was Energy Secretary, he "bunked off" to watch the Red Sox play. And last Wednesday he stayed up until 4am to watch his team clinch the World Series final.

This means that, when our interview takes place on the Paddington to Bristol train last Thursday, Miliband has only had about four or five hours sleep. He does not seem the worse for wear – perhaps as the father of two boys under the age of four, Daniel and Sam, he is used to disrupted nights. The Labour leader is travelling to Bristol to meet low- paid workers, as well as those who earn a "living wage" of £7.45 an hour (to be raised nationally tomorrow), cleaners for KPMG in the city, for whom staying up late into the night is a job.

Travelling with him is Arnie Graf, who mentored a young Barack Obama and developed the first living wage scheme in Baltimore in the early 1990s. Graf, 69, carried out a review of Labour Party organisation two years ago. There seems to be a strong connection between the older American and the younger politician. Miliband refers to "what Arnie taught me" a number of times in our interview, and Graf seems to be something of a father figure – although, I imagine, less professorial than Ralph was. At the On A Roll café in Southmead, Bristol, Graf has gathered a group of low-pay workers to discuss the living wage with Miliband – a more down-to-earth setting than the Hampstead intellectual circles of his upbringing.

Miliband is launching a new policy, Make Work Pay contracts, where a Labour government would refund employers who pay their staff the living wage. Miliband claims Labour is "setting the agenda". Encouraging firms to pay the living wage, he says in our interview on the train, is "absolutely part of a wealth creation agenda – not just about a wealth distribution agenda".

But Miliband's energy price freeze has been widely criticised, by green groups as well as power firms, and Nick Clegg, his potential coalition partner post-2015, joined David Cameron in calling it a "con". Yet Miliband says the policy has the support of 80 per cent of the public: "It reveals quite a profound thing about the state of politics and the state of the country and where the Conservative Party lies in relation to that."

The Miliband family, in their home in north London, switched last winter from E.on to First Utility, something seized on by the PM last week as the Labour leader adopting government policy.

Miliband says: "Families will make their own decision about whether to switch and whether they can gain from that. Here's the difference: he [Cameron] thinks switching can solve the problems of a broken market. It's actually nonsense that that can solve the problem. Markets operate on the basis of public confidence. When I've been meeting with the Big Six companies since conference, I always say to them: look, markets depend on public confidence, and you don't have public confidence."

On the day of our interview, Labour MPs backed legislation paving the way for HS2, after weeks of apparent uncertainty. "We support HS2 … but a time when there is a pressure on the finances it's absolutely right that we are the people saying you've got to make sure this project is value for money. It can't be a blank cheque." Could it be a deal-breaker with the Lib Dems in a coalition deal? "Look, we support HS2 and we're going to do the right thing."

Miliband is clearly to the left of Tony Blair, but last week he told a newspaper he was going after the votes of "Major's millions". He needs to keep on friendly terms with Clegg in case that deal arises. So where does he really sit on the spectrum?

"We believe in a market economy, but as Arnie was just saying to me, we are pro-markets that work, and competition that works."

Last week, Gordon Brown, Miliband's former boss, described himself as an "ex-politician" – is it time for him to step down as an MP? "That's definitely a decision for him. Look, he's playing an important role as a member of parliament, he's also Ban Ki-moon's special envoy on global education; I'll leave decisions about what he's going to do up to him."

On the day that we meet, Miliband is forced to condemn the behaviour of Unite officials protesting outside the homes of Ineos bosses over the Grangemouth dispute.

Is there some way to go in what the Labour leader described, at the height of the Falkirk affair this summer, as "mending the link" with the unions?

"In terms of our big reforms of the party, I am absolutely pressing ahead with them.... It's really important to me that we produce a Labour Party where we have that link with trade unionists and working people. One of the things Arnie taught me is if you're going to be a party that speaks for working people you've got to be a party that organisationally has working people at its heart."

Is the final passing of the royal charter on press regulation last week – albeit one to which no newspapers have yet signed up – a personal vindication for Miliband, who first pressed for a public inquiry into phone-hacking back in July 2011? "No, I honestly don't see it that way. What I see is that after a long road we've got a charter that commands the confidence of the victims [and] which has listened to some of the concerns of the press. It's incredibly important to have a critical press, a press that holds me to account, a press that criticises me."

However, Miliband says he does not regret "for a minute" taking on the Mail over their treatment of Ralph. "I feel I was right to stand up for my dad and that's what it was always about for me. It was the right thing to do."

Curriculum vitae

1969 Born 24 December to Marion Kozak and Ralph Miliband

1977 & 1982 Lives in Boston

1981-89 Attends Haverstock Comprehensive School

1989 Reads PPE at Oxford

1993 Becomes researcher for Harriet Harman

1994 Works for Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor

1995 Studies at the LSE

1997 Appointed a special adviser to Gordon Brown

2002 Meets Justine Thornton

2004 Appointed chairman of Treasury's Council of Economic Advisers

2005 Becomes MP in the safe Labour seat of Doncaster North

2010 Elected leader of the Labour Party, beating brother David

2011 Marries Justine Thornton

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