In May 2008 I met Dylan Jones for lunch. He's the editor of GQ Magazine. He commissioned me to write a 3,000 word profile of the Miliband Brothers for the November edition of his magazine. I won't pretend I wasn't daunted. My level of daunt was increased when I realised that Labour's leadership woes might render my article completely out of date by the time it appeared on the newsstands in early October. Luckily, my fears were misplaced. Anyway, here is my first profile for GQ. Dylan kindly wrote this in his editor's letter at the beginning of the magazine...
Elsewhere in this issue you'll find Iain Dale's fascinating profile of Ed and David Miliband, the power duo at the heart of new New Labour (page 294). Dale researched his subjects for months before hitting his keyboard, and he's produced one of the most perceptive political profiles of the year. Politicians are funny animals, and when they go out of their way to try to appear sincere, it's often easy to assume that - for the speaker at least - saying it is actually in lieu of believing it. Why else would David Miliband have said to GQ, in a restaurant in Victoria last year, "You know what? Gordon Brown has my full and total support"?
It’s every politician’s dream. Imagine it. You appear on BBC’s Question Time, get mercilessly harangued by a beautiful young woman who is so impressed by your erudite answer that she sends a note to your office the next day asking you out on a date. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in real political life … unless you happen to be called Ed Miliband.
While brother David hogs the headlines and is touted as a Prime Minister in waiting, Ed has hunkered down, got on with his job, made many friends in all sections of the Labour Party and just as importantly avoided making too many enemies.
It is seventy years since two brothers served in Cabinet together, when Edward and Oliver Stanley were appointed to Neville Chamberlain’s pre war government. It is not a propitious precedent as Edward died only a few months after being appointed. But the Milibands are the very opposite of latter day Cains and Abels. Siblings they may be, but rivals they are not – at least in their own minds, and not yet. They shrink from the comparison, but many Labour Party insiders are talking about them in the same way US Democrats used to talk about the Kennedy brothers. The Labour Party needs a saviour and many believe he will answer to the name Miliband.
David Miliband is not in any way a young man in a hurry, but he often comes across as impatient. He’s frustrated at the clunkingly slow pace of public service reform and baffled by the inability of his colleagues to see clearly what needs to be done to get the Labour Party on track for a fourth election victory.
His article in the Guardian in July, which nearly provoked Gordon Brown to sack him for disloyalty was aimed fair and square at the Labour Party. His aim may have been slightly askew – most interpreted it as the start of a leadership bid - but he was trying to encourage the Party to turn its fire on David Cameron rather than itself. The article’s spectacular consequences left Brownites appalled and his cheerleaders delighted. Their man had displayed the very kind of cojones he had appeared to be lacking only sixteen months earlier, when he ducked out of fighting Gordon Brown for the post Blair inheritance. At the time, many Blairite Labour MPs pleaded with him to stand even though he would have undoubtedly lost to the Great Clunking Fist. One MP is adamant that if he flunks it again, it’s game over. “If he doesn’t wield the knife this time, it’s two strikes and you’re out,” says a junior Labour Minister frustrated at the Prime Minister’s failings.
Few realize how close David Miliband came to making Gordon Brown fight for his job in May 2007, when Tony Blair announced he would be stepping down less than two months later. Brown’s henchmen had issued dire warnings – anonymously, of course - about the consequences of Miliband challenging Brown for what they regarded as his job by right. Miliband desperately wanted to ignore these threats and stand, but there was one thing holding his back – his young family. At the very same time as nominations for the Labour leadership opened, the Milibands were about to adopt their second child, Jacob, in the United States. At any time, the birth parents could have withdrawn from the process, possibly horrified by the publicity giving their son to the potential British Prime Minister would no doubt have attracted. Miliband decided the risk was not worth taking, telling friends: “The one thing I was never going to compromise on was Jacob”.
Miliband and his violinist wife Louise Shackleton had already adopted one child, Isaac, in 2004. They chose to go to America to do so in order to avoid the intrusion of the British tabloid press and because adopting new born babies in this country is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, the tabloids made every effort to seek out the baby’s birth mother, something which rankles with Miliband even now. He gives the distinct impression to friends that it wouldn’t take much to give up politics if the intrusion into his family life became too wearing. All fathers are devoted to their children, but with David Miliband this devotion borders on an obsession – something not uncommon in the fathers of adopted children. There’s that subconscious need to try just that little bit harder than normal fathers. He knows the toll his career may take on his kids, and older son Isaac has already started to notice his father’s long absences brought on by the demands of his job. “Daddy stay, Daddy stay!” he implored his father recently, as David Miliband was about to leave his South Shields home to travel down to London on a Monday morning. “Give Daddy a kiss goodbye,” said the doting Dad. “No. Daddy stay, Daddy stay,” pleaded Isaac. It was all David Miliband could do to tear himself away and walk out the door.
Such dilemmas have yet to trouble younger brother Ed, who has to rank as one of the most eligible bachelors in politics. He has a long term girlfriend, a feisty environmental lawyer called Justine, who is fiercely protective of him, but far from the stereotypical political partner. “She’s a still waters run deep kind of woman”, says a friend of the couple.
The same friend tells how she met Ed at a party during the painful breakup of long-term relationship. “I’d only ever exchanged a few words with him but at a party he bounded up to me and said: ‘Justine tells me you’re having a rough time, are you OK?’ Not many men would have done that. It showed empathy and a willingness to discuss personal stuff. He’s good at putting people at their ease.”
Despite their reputation for making friends easily, it is easy to dismiss the Miliband brothers as political geeks, reared on a diet of politics, Marxist history and lefty doctrine.It’s true they both studied politics at Oxford (and both emerged with Firsts). It’s also true that neither of them has ever worked outside politics and the media. They belong to a new political class which believes it can run the country without ever having experienced life in the real world. Their contemporaries in the Labour Party like Andy Burnham, James Purnell, Liam Byrne, Douglas Alexander and Ruth Kelly all hail from a similar background. So do George Osborne, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for that matter. It’s almost as if they were born to rule.
While David Miliband can indeed appear a little intellectual, if not geeky, his brother has more of the common touch. Perhaps it is because Ed is more ambivalent about politics. He has told friends that his happiest year was spent teaching at Harvard. Some friends feel that because politics is not his be all and end all, he is better at it than most.
Ed Miliband has it in him to be inspirational. He was giving off the cuff speeches before David Cameron had even thought of it. Indeed, it is a rarity indeed for Ed Miliband to ever deliver a speech from a prepared text. He believes that the era when a politician can turn up, read out a pre-prepared speech and then leave is over. He maintains he hasn’t delivered a speech from a written text in more than two years. He’s learnt the art of conversational speaking – taking to an audience at its own level, without any appearance of pretention. And it is for this reason that many in the Labour Party think he has it in him to go right to the top. He’s brilliant at hustings, loves Q & A sessions and can tickle an audiences’s G Spot without appearing to try. He doesn’t speak in soundbites and despite the constraints of collective responsibility he usually appears to at least attempt to answer a question honestly. His brother tries the same approach but sometimes appears to struggle to find the right words.
While they may differ in their approach to public speaking, their politics are almost indistinguishable. It was for this reason that they were the oil which managed to smooth the wheels of the very spiky relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Ed Miliband spent a decade working as an adviser to Gordon Brown, while his brother was ensconced in Downing Street as Tony Blair’s chief policy wonk. Whenever misunderstandings occurred between the two Labour titans (which they frequently did), a crisis brewed, the brothers attempted to avert it, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Both remain loyal to their Masters. Tony Blair once called David Miliband “my Wayne Rooney”, while Gordon Brown demonstrated his hopes for Ed by promoting his to his Cabinet only two years after first becoming an MP – a stratospheric rise in anyone’s book.
But the ‘geek’label is a difficult one to shake off, especially for the older Miliband. One Labour MP told me: “David has got the worst of all worlds. He’s too geeky for the Home Counties Labour people but also too geeky for the Labour heartlands”. His haircut and dress sense add weight to a slight sense of otherworldliness. He’s not quite on Planet Redwood but he needs to ditch the striped ties and add a bit of colour to what some perceive – unfairly - as a slightly monochrome personality. When David Miliband first joined the Cabinet Office under John Prescott’s tutelage, Prescott introduced him to the Department’s staff with the words: “The Mekon has landed”.
The importance of their upbringing and family background is crucial in understanding what makes the Miliband brothers tick. Their father Ralph, one of the last jews to escape Nazi ruled Belgium when he fled to Britain in 1940, was perhaps the pre-eminent Marxist historian of his time. The Miliband parents insisted their young offspring attend their intellectual-filled dinner parties from a very early age. A friend of the family says: “Theirs was an equal voice in the conversation even when they were quite small. It was a fantastic example of how to treat children.”
Ralph Miliband’s brand of socialism is today considered almost quaint. In essence he believed that if socialism compromised with capitalist structures it could never achieves its objectives, and that the Labour Party exemplified all that was wrong with that compromise. Quite what he would make of the Labour Party today is anybody’s guess. It’s easy to believe he would be horrified by most aspects of New Labour and his sons’ crucial role in its development. But despite his ideological predispositions, Ralph Miliband would, according to both his sons, be proud of the fact that they have reached the political heights.
So how did the Miliband brothers become Labour? According to a family friend, the jury’s out. “For a reason I have never really understood, they just became Labour. Maybe it’s generational or about the politics of Oxford. Or maybe it’s about ambition. What’s intriguing is that they not only rejected the old Trot politics, they also rejected the left of the Labour Party.”
A friend of Ed Milband’s from Oxford, Marc Stears, is more categoric: “Back in 1989 few of us saw New Labour coming, but Ed was already there. He knew what had to be done for the left to get power.” Of course, Ed was following in his brother’s footsteps, and by all accounts had a hard act to follow. It was a pattern which would repeat itself time and again in later life. During his time at Oxford David Miliband had been President of the Junior Common Room and led a student campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa. When Ed arrived at Oxford he just got on with it. There was no resentment, no feeling of something to live up to. He did things his own way, although was irritated by being know as Ted, rather than Ed. Marc Stears paints a glowing picture of the student Miliband. “Everyone knew Ed. He had instant low level popularity and he was disarming, principled and non tribal. We all knew about his father’s work but Ed had his own distinct social and political agenda. ”
While their father was an idealist and a benign ideologue, the sons decided that they would rather put theory into practice. There was only one vehicle for that - the Labour Party. Labour historian Brian Brivati thinks it goes further, and that the notion that we all need to find a way of rejecting our parents or at least superceding them, is at least subconsciously at play here. “They were rejecting the route of transformatory Trotskyite politics and accepted the parliamentary road and gradualism” he says. “In a way that was a rebellion in their own family, a rebellion against the parental millieu.”
Rebellion or not, former Labour leader Michael Foot, now 95 years old, says: “Ralph was incredibly proud of who they were and what they have done, but would like them to have been a little more left wing.” When you ask the Milibands what their father, who died in 1994, would have of their Cabinet careers, both look wistful, as if their main regret in life is that their father died before he could share in their success.
One Labour MP thinks their background gave them the intellectual rigour to succeed. “Marxism is a bit like Christianity. It gives you the intellectual discipline which sets you up for any kind of politics. What it doesn’t give you is an emotional link to the Labour Party,” he says, hinting that the Milibands, like Tony Blair before them, have a slightly detached and unemotional view of their own party. To them it’s a vehicle, rather than a way of life.
Despite that, their involvement with the Party goes way back. After taking his ‘O’ Levels in 1986, Ed got a summer job as a researcher for Tony Benn, not for the first time following in the footsteps of Brother David, who had already done voluntary work for Ken Livingstone. Later on, David worked for Patricia Hewitt at the IPPR, a leading left of centre think tank, and Ed became Harriet Harman’s researcher. They both got sucked into Labour Party politics at a time when the left was in decline. They hitched themselves to the right, who were in the ascendant and never looked back. A friend of David’s says: “They were always left progressive but it was always with that New Labour careerist shine. They were going places and they wanted to achieve concrete things.”
Ed Miliband is the kind of politician who inspires loyalty both from his own political coterie of friends, but also his civil servants. He operates with a degree of informality which the more stuffy civil servants find difficult to get used to but eventually come to like. He’s ‘Ed’ and corrects anyone who addresses him as ‘Minister’. Brother David prefers informality too, but in the Foreign Office it’s more difficult to impose.
To get on in politics you need the hide of a rhino and the social skills of a butterfly. The jury seems to be out as to whether either Miliband cuts the ice when it comes to gladhanding the various constituent parts of the Labour Party who get to vote in a leadership election. A friend of both the brothers has bad news for Ed, who he says is the “less socially accomplished of the two.” He adds: “If there’s a room to work, Ed will get trapped in a conversation he’s interested in, wheareas David will work the room relentlessly.” A Blairite Labour Minister concurs. “Ed carries on the Brownite tradition of not deigning to speak to anyone he doesn’t regard as a potential equal. David makes more of an effort. I can’t imagine having a pint with Ed.” In a way, this illustrates the continuing divide between the Blairites and the Brownites. While the Blairite minister reckons Ed is a little aloof, there are plenty of witnesses to him leading the late night singing around the piano at party conferences and enjoying letting his hair down.
Ed Miliband has also gained the respect of trade union leaders, whose members still have a third of the votes in a leadership election. At a recent Labour Party Policy Forum he negotiated with the union general secretaries. One Labour Minister who was present said: “He was much better, by that I mean steely and tough, than everyone expected. They were furious with him but he got their respect.”
Both the Milibands get their political kicks from ideas. They operate on the basis of “If we are here, how can get there”. They’re never happier than when discussing how to develop a new policy one or other of them has thought up. David, in particular, loves wrestling with big, insoluble problems. A friend says: “What he really likes is the discussion and debate before a decision. That’s when he really comes to life”. When he was a minister at DEFRA his friend Brian Brivati used to organize lunchtime seminars for him on different issues of the day. Miliband repeatedly said they were the most enjoyable part of his jam-packed day.
Ed Miliband is particularly interested in the area of social justice and public service reform. His private staff has lost count of the times he’s bounded into his office with a puppy-dog like enthusiasm and proposed some radical new idea to help a particular group of people. He restarted an online discussion forum in 2006 called the Left Book Club Online with the intention of sparking proper debate, although since he became a Minister it has disappeared.
They both get a lot of their ideas from their northern constituencies, Ed in Doncaster and David in South Shields. Their conversations are peppered with anecdotes. Just as they were both affected by their comprehensive schooling, they are deeply affected by a lack of aspiration among certain social groups in their constituencies. Where once most eighteen year olds would have gone down the mines, giving them a sense of discipline and community, now they have neither. Ed Miliband recently encountered a seventeen year old and asked him what job he would like. Quick as a flash, the teenager shot back: “Yours”. Yet he was leaving school without a thought of going to university. No one had suggested it to him. Miliband was appalled.
The Miliband brothers are also living examples of the fact that the age of tribal politics is closing. The fact that party politics is now conducted entirely on the central ground plays into their hands. They’re not especially interested in the old style arguments of left versus right. If the Tories agree with them they regard it as a plus. They have made it their business to cultivate friends in the Tory Party – people like Ed Vaizey, who was just ahead of Ed Miliband at Oxford and has a high regard for him. “He has one of those faces which make you instantly like him,” says Vaizey. “He’ll happily have a gossip with you, but he knows there’s a line which you don’t cross.”
David Miliband has told friends he is closer to his brother than he has ever been, but despite the fact that they live within a stone’s throw of each other in London’s fashionable Primrose Hill, they rarely have time to meet socially to just chew the fat.
Their closeness was stretched this summer when Ed was nearly forced to choose between his brother and his inbuilt loyalty to Gordon Brown. One friend said Ed was “torn by loyalty to the party and the loyalty of brothers”. It’s probably not the last time his conscience will have to wrestle with that particular dilemma.
Opinion is sharply divided both in the Labour Party and the Westminster Village about which Miliband is more likely to become leader of the Labour Party. There’s little doubt that in the current climate David is the better placed – he’s been tested and emerged with his reputation enhanced. He’s given the matter of leadership a good deal of thought and knows what needs to be done.
Ed, on the other hand, has only recently emerged from his older brother’s shadow, and realized that he too has his chance for greatness. The question is: does he want it as much as his older brother?
* Reproduced with kind permission of GQ.