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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: From easy listening to tough love for Castaway Ed Miliband

The choices must have been his own rather than some party adviser’s because of the borderline naffness of some of them

No one could accuse a man who picks Robbie Williams’ “Angels” as the one record out of the eight he would take to a desert island – “more cheese, I think it’s fair to say”, Ed Miliband admitted with incontestable accuracy – of being, well, cool.

Even if he and his wife heard an “amazing” performance of the 1997 pop anthem when they were “falling in love”.

And the Labour leader seemed strangely eager to demonstrate his uncoolness on Desert Island Discs. “I was pretty square,” he told Kirsty Young when asked if it was true he hadn’t had a girlfriend through his years at Oxford.

But that was nothing beside his explanation for choosing “Take on Me” by A-Ha (which, as if to emphasise his innocence in matters pop, he pronounced Ha Ha”). “Maybe it’s because I remember going to the school disco – and I’m sure this was playing – and wearing an extremely bad pair of white trousers and a purple jumper. No wonder I didn’t pull, given that…” No wonder indeed, but you couldn’t help asking why he would make such a –to use his own apposite words again – “cheesy choice” if that was his main memory of it.

Post-Discs analysis has it that the choices must have been his own rather than some party adviser’s because of the borderline naffness of some of them. No doubt that’s true, but it’s seductive to think it was instead a brilliantly targeted appeal to unhip voter preferences: the “easy listening” silent majority.

Not for them David Cameron’s infuriatingly – not least to the artists themselves –frequent references to the Smiths or the Housemartins he was addicted to in his youth.

Fuelling this conspiracy theory is the list of tunes dropped from a mock selection he produced for a Labour website in 2010: No Billy Bragg now (or Beethoven); the most unashamedly leftist anthem was Paul Robeson’s version of “The Ballad of Joe Hill” –a favourite of his parents and such a distant memory as to be politically acceptable. Likewise his book choice. James Joyce’s brain-bending Ulysses out, Douglas Adams’ perfectly middle-brow Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy in.

But if the records were easy listening, the same couldn’t always be said of the interview. He talked affectingly about his parents, refugees from the Nazis. But when it came to wresting the party leadership from his older brother David, we were in territory that was borderline excruciating, scarcely mitigated by the low, almost conspiratorial voice he deployed in Sunday morning’s broadcast.

The pair had “danced round” the issue as the 2010 election loomed “because neither of us wanted to confront it, I suppose… We never kind of, sort of, had a total heart-to-heart about it”. It had been “tough, very tough” for “the family”, and “possibly” he had underestimated that.

Was his relationship with David healed? “Healing. Healing.” Could his choice of Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, despite also being a favourite of his parents, have been a subliminal reference to those agonies? At least he didn’t go for The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”