What is the point of Ed Miliband?

If you can overlook its bizarre claim that Ed is a ‘political insurgent’, this biography of the Labour leader provides some unwitting insights into the new species of cut-off politician.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s biography of Ed Miliband provides a brilliant, at times searing insight into the aloofness and ideological lightness of the modern politician. Sadly, it’s an unwitting insight. The authors, clearly enamoured with Ed, do their best to present him as an edgy leader, even using words like ‘zeal’, ‘insurgent’ and ‘guerrilla’ to describe his political style. But their material, the essential truth of Ed’s emptiness, gets the better of them. In a page-by-page war between the authors’ desire to make their subject sound sexy and their subject’s resolute lack of sexiness, the authors lose and the rather sad reality that is Ed Miliband wins.

The attempt to doll up what is essentially Miliband’s nerdiness as something more profound starts early on. Deploying the kind of simultaneously bland and boastful language most people only use in CVs, the authors tell us that at his London state school, Haverstock, Ed ‘developed two crucial skills: how to relate to and communicate with people from different backgrounds’. What they mean is that he was bullied.

Even in a comp that had more than the average number of middle-class pupils, Ed, from leafy Hampstead, son of Ralph the academic Marxist, found it hard to fit in. He was mocked for his dress sense and the fact that he appeared as a ‘Three O’Clock Reviewer’ on LBC radio’s Young London every fortnight, where, according to a fellow reviewer, he was ‘very nasal, very serious, very focused and quite dull’. Not surprisingly this badly dressed boy with the slightly famous dad and penchant for talking about books on the radio was ‘happiest among the middle-class contingent’ at Haverstock. Yet Hasan and Macintyre do their damnedest to present what sound like excruciatingly awkward school days as a kind of political education, a lesson in the ways of the proletariat and ‘people from different backgrounds’.

The sexing-up strategy continues in the chapter on Miliband’s college years. At Oxford, we are told in scintillating terms, Ed first displayed his political ‘zeal’. Unlike his older brother David, who was best known at Oxford for ‘composing essays in the college bar, holding a Mars Bar and a pint of orange juice’, Ed launched ‘an insurgency’ that was ‘absolutely relentless’ as part of an ‘intense’ political campaign. He perfected ‘the art of guerrilla warfare’. Wow. What did he do? Procure guns from Beirut for the purposes of overthrowing capitalism? Not quite. He led a student campaign against a rise in rent charges. Even his eventual sellout, when he caved in to what other students called a ‘dodgy compromise’ with the university authorities, gets sexed up. ‘He had failed in his campaign’, say Hasan and Macintyre, ‘but had succeeded in proving himself as a leader and insurgent who could unite people from all walks of life’. Forward to the revolution!

On every page, lurking behind the revolutionary rhetoric and the Dan Brown-style tendency to end each chapter with a cliffhanger (‘Will Ed opt for politics or academe?’), one can almost hear Ed’s voice protesting against his generous biographers: ‘Actually, I’m really boring.’ So he ‘didn’t smoke or do drugs, and he drank very little’, remembers a university friend, but he did often ‘agonise over which chocolate bars to buy from the machine in the graduate common room’. Intended message: Ed had a few vices of his own. Received message: Ed is dull. We’re told that he wasn’t completely obsessed with politics at uni; he also had a ‘fondness for soap operas’. His Oxford friends ‘remember him slinking off to the college TV room to watch Dallas, Neighbours and, occasionally, EastEnders’. Intended message: Ed was normal, just another guy. Received message: Ed was abnormal, not one of the guys. Bear in mind that this is the early Nineties, when Dallas was shit.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Ed’s political career is just how accidental it all seems to have been. Right from his decision to start working for the Labour Party in 1993 to his ascendancy to the leadership in 2010, everything seems to have been a bit of a fluke, a product, not of design or ambition and certainly not of ideological drive, but of a rather teenage, CV-boosting approach to life, where if there is any guiding force at all it is the question of what will be personally beneficial. Here, the authors are more to the point, writing of Ed in 1992, when he was a 22-year-old graduate: ‘[He] was without doubt ambitious, but he had no… plan.’ Not sure whether to be an academic or a politician, he opted for the media instead, becoming a researcher for the Channel 4 politics show A Week in Politics. Apparently, ‘some of the female researchers helped him to improve his dress sense’.

In a fascinating (but again largely unremarked upon) insight into the increasing cosiness of the relationship between politics and media, the tighter interlinking of these two elite worlds, we are told that in 1993 Harriet Harman, then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, telephoned Andrew Rawnsley, then a presenter on The World this Week, to ask if she could have this Miliband fellow. So Ed went to work for Harman on the Labour Party’s Treasury team. But she got switched to another department and it looked like Ed might be out of a job. However, ‘luck was on his side’, as the authors put it, and as a result of something impressive he did for Harman (I can’t remember what it was now) he got snapped up by Gordon Brown, then shadow chancellor of the exchequer.

Yet even here, in the Brown camp, he was never certain whether politics was the right ‘career’ for him (he seems always to have viewed it as a career rather than as a passion or vocation). So in 1995 he left politics in order to ‘bolster his CV’, as Hasan and Macintyre put it, by doing a postgraduate degree in economics at the London School of Economics. The way in which Brown granted permission for this sabbatical is noteworthy: he said Ed should go off and undertake these studies ‘in preparation for playing a leading part in the New Labour Treasury’. There was a time when politicians, especially Labour ones, prepared themselves for clout and office by forging a constituency, rubbing shoulders with the little people, breathing in the concerns and aspirations of those whom they might one day represent. Not Ed. He went to the LSE. As late as 2002, not 10 years ago, this man who now leads one of Britain’s largest political parties was asking himself: ‘[Do I] definitely want a career in politics?’ He wanted the ‘space and time to explore other options – chief among them, academe’. So he left politics again and during that crucial New Labour moment of the Iraq War he was at Harvard, studying, watching politics on TV.

Probably the most striking thing about Miliband’s ‘career’ is how incredibly insulated he has always been. Ensconced first in the media bubble and then in the Brown bubble and finally in the Harvard bubble, all of his experiences prior to becoming a member of parliament in 2005 took place far from the madding crowd. Ed’s career speaks to a very new breed of cut-off politician, one whose authority is based less on the passions or ideals of a section of the public that he has struggled to win the support of, than on the favour of powerful men and the fortunes of luck and chance. It is like something out of Ancient Rome (and not the Republic) when at Ralph Miliband’s funeral in 1994, at which both Ed and David gave eulogies, one of Ralph’s lifelong left-wing friends turns to an acquaintance in the pew and says: ‘Edward is the real believer in progressive politics.’ Thus was Ed blessed as the legitimate representative of leftish hopes, over his older but apparently less progressive brother. It’s like something out of Dynasty. You can’t help feeling that when the authors say that Ed learned at school ‘how to relate to and communicate with people from different backgrounds’, they have desperately scoured his entire life for some evidence, somewhere, that he once had a conversation or a run-in with a normal human being. And the only place they could find it was in his school days when he probably accidentally bumped into a black kid or had his lunch money stolen by a chav.

When Ed does finally get an elected seat in parliament, in Doncaster North in 2005, it only further exposes how removed and allergic to the demos is today’s typical politician. Alongside other Brown loyalists, including Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, Ed was a behind-the-scenes guy who was offered a super-safe Labour seat only for the purposes of boosting his clout in Brown circles and making him a candidate for the Cabinet. Luckily for Ed (once again, it’s lady luck who controls his destiny), the sitting Labour MP in Doncaster North, Kevin Hughes, became seriously ill, so Brown’s people set about securing for Ed this ‘Labour seat that would guarantee entry into parliament’. As Hasan and Macintyre point out, Ed was the first person who wasn’t a miner or the son of a miner to get the Doncaster North seat. As one local Labour person puts it, Ed had ‘much work to do in understanding the culture which [he was] to represent’. Presumably he studied some books about Doncaster. He’s good at studying.

Ed’s political ascendancy in Doncaster North exposes party officials’ increasingly degraded view of electoral seats. They treat these places, not as political entities packed with people with ideas and concerns, but rather as fiefdoms, blobs of land whose acquisition might boost the power of the individual sent there to go through the formality of being elected. When Brown or someone else sends one of his minions to get a super-safe seat, it is akin to when feudal lords used to give a bit of land to some loyal supporter. Most of the influential people in politics today – from David Cameron to Nick Clegg to Ed Balls to both the Milibands – were empowered in this way: first they became politically valuable to a section of the elite and then they were sent out on a land grab with an eye for making them more valuable still.

Even after reading 303 pages of sometimes OTT biography, it is hard to work out what drives Ed. It certainly isn’t ideology or political passion. Indeed, some very revealing bits of the book tell us that both Ed and David frequently moaned about their dad Ralph’s ‘dogmatic’ left-wing politics. When he gave a draft of his 1993 book Socialism for a Sceptical Age to his sons to read, David told him it was pointless to ‘defend longstanding socialist ideals’, while Ed said the book was a ‘blueprint for a world a long way off’. Also, both David and Ed refer to their mother’s habit of saying ‘WOW’ – that is, ‘why oh why’, as in ‘why oh why do you work for Tony Blair?’ or ‘why oh why has Labour ditched its principles?’. One gets the impression that the Miliband household was a bit like Absolutely Fabulous, with the parents as the radicals and the children as the cardigan-wearing bores who wear their pragmatism like badges of honour. I am no fan of Ralph Miliband or his creed of ‘parliamentary socialism’, but I had twinges of sympathy for him as I read about how both David and Ed basically told him to get real and stop dreaming about a socialist future.

And then, somehow, Ed becomes Labour leader in 2010, beating his brother David. Yet even this, even this clash between siblings to lead a major political party, just comes across as flat and dull. Because Ed and David didn’t represent distinctive outlooks but were just similar-looking, similar-voiced New Labour drones in similar suits, their battle for the soul of Labour (LOL!) looked more like two bank clerks being interviewed for the job of bank manager. At the end of the book, Hasan and Macintyre report that after he won the leadership election, ‘surreally, the new party leader was alone backstage – until he was joined by his aides, who rushed over to be at his side’. Again, they try to sex up this indeed very surreal moment, presenting Ed’s post-victory loneliness as a consequence of the fact that all the David supporters were angry with him. The truth, however, is at once less exciting and more terrifying: this surreal moment was a product of the fact that no one really knew how he won. It was yet another fluke. An accident. Luck was on his side, probably. To this day, nobody, including Ed Miliband, knows why Ed Miliband is leader of the Labour Party.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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