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Friday 27th January 2012 | 00:01
By Paul Waugh
The polls are unflattering, the media is unforgiving and the unions are unhappy. But Ed Miliband seems remarkably, resolutely unbothered. He may have suffered the slings and arrows of Opposition fortunes so far in 2012, but the Labour leader has found reason to be cheerful in his own backyard.
With the economy and growth dominating politics, Miliband declares that his central message on the deficit is now being echoed back at him by the voters of Doncaster.
“I think that we’ve convinced people that the Government’s going too far and too fast,” he says. “I hear people saying to me, I had it in my constituency the other day, people saying: ‘The Government, yeah the cuts are too far and too fast aren’t they? Yeah of course something needed to be done, but it is too far and too fast’.”
Some in Westminster and the press may think that particular mantra has been used too freely and too frequently. But Miliband’s Yorkshire voter suggests the Peter Mandelson rule of spin doctoring may apply: only when the media are thoroughly, heartily sick of a soundbite is it likely to be finally getting through to the wider public.
As he sits in the spacious Leader of the Opposition’s office in Norman Shaw, Miliband certainly appears unconcerned by the noises off of recent weeks. What does he think of the polls putting the Tories ahead? “I don’t tend to look at the polls,” he replies. “Polls go up and down. I was never complacent [when they were up]. It’s one of those things.”
Does he read the newspapers? “No, not really.” Does he watch the TV news? “When you get home, the thing I most want to do is spend time with my kids.”.
The commentariat are another group that don’t trouble him. “You know I think the thing you learn most in this job is you let the commentators, the people who give you advice, to take their own view and you carry on doing the right thing as you see it.”
“The issue for an Opposition at this stage of a Parliament is ‘are you doing the right things’? Are you winning the battle of ideas, which I think we are, with responsible capitalism? Are you facing up to the challenges which your party faces, which I think we are, on the issue of fiscal responsibility and issues like welfare and taking on the vested interests? Are you a party that people are coming towards?..The race is probably one third run. Let’s see where we are at the end of the race.” The message is clear: he's a long-distance runner focused only on the 2015 finishing tape.
On the battle of ideas, Miliband has spotted something that suggests The Prime Minister’s own brand of responsible capitalism is, well, a confection. He’s noticed that Chocolate Oranges, the object of Cameron’s ire in Opposition, are still piled high and cheap next to the tills of WHSmith’s. Tap it, unwrap it and the discounted choc tactic is still there six years after Cameron first complained.
“Look, if he can’t sort out the chocolate orange, he’s not going to be sort out the train companies, the energy companies, the banks, is he? And you know I think it’s very interesting that David Cameron’s example of responsible capitalism was the chocolate orange. He’s failed to sort it out, why? Because of his basic set of beliefs. You know he believes in a nudge philosophy which seems to amount to just asking people to do nice things. But that isn’t going to sort out the problem. You’ve got to change the rules.”
With this week’s GDP figure for Q4, 2011 revealed to be -0.2%, Miliband fears that things may not get better. Even though inflation is now falling, his ‘Squeezed Middle’ will keep feeling the squeeze. “I think the reality is that, and my fear is that, we’re set for quite a long period - this is what all the independent evidence says - we’re set for quite a long period of stagnant living standards or worse.”
“The old inequality was rich versus the poor. The new one is you’ve got people in the middle and on lower incomes who are feeling squeezed while those at the top seem to be getting the runaway rewards. And that’s what we’ve got to change.”
There seems to be a global economic lab experiment at present, with the US trying a limited stimulus and Europe opting for fiscal tightening. Who’ll be proved right?
“Well I fear the collective austerity’s not working. That’s what I really fear. I was seeing the Italian prime minister Mario Monti last week and talking to him about this. I really worry that what Cameron has done is he’s got an approach cutting too far and too fast at home and he’s exported that in terms of the international agenda. What you should be having at the moment is a British prime minister who’s saying ‘look we’ve got to get the growth’. It’s very interesting when Standard & Poor’s came out with that thing about the eurozone. They said themselves that the cycle of austerity is self-defeating. That is a ratings agency saying that.”
So does he think Labour will win its economic argument at home if the US outperforms Europe on jobs and growth? Will that prove his case?
“Well I think that’s one of the things, but look I want the British economy to do as well as possible. I just fear that it just sort of stands to reason that if government is cutting back and if consumers are cutting back and if you don’t have a convincing strategy for exports because the world is not growing sufficiently strong, then where is your growth going to come from?”
One area where Labour seems to be toughening its act is on the issue of using IMF cash to bail out the eurozone. Last year his party voted – with Tory Eurosceptics - against increasing the ceiling for UK liabilities. Has anything changed since then to make him change his party’s stance should another Parliamentary vote be needed?
“We’ll look at any vote there is on the IMF. The reason we’ve taken the position we have on the IMF is you can’t have a sticking plaster solution to the eurozone’s problems. Seventeen countries of the eurozone have enough firepower to provide the backing for the eurozone countries. And that’s what they should do. That’s the thing that will give the markets confidence.” So, he wants the ECB to act rather than the IMF? “Exactly.”
Miliband is unrepentant about his and Ed Balls’ decision to back a public sector pay squeeze to 2015. Referring to the deficit cuts, he says: “I think the Government has actually started to lose that argument. I think though our task is now to win the argument and to show that we can be credible with the nation’s finances and that is a really important task for us.”
But the unions clearly haven’t liked the pay plan. “Look we’ve had our disagreements obviously with some of the trade union leaders over the last week. I think we were taking, and are taking, the right position. I think the position that says, if it’s a choice between jobs and the scope for big pay rises in the public sector or in the private sector the choice should be jobs.
“I realise that’s really tough and difficult for people. But you know labour party leaders and trade union leaders go through their watershed moments quite often it seems to me.”
Is this one of them? “Well I think it is just one of those moments and I think it will pass and I personally don’t think there’ll be big disaffiliations.”
If he ever thinks that he personally is getting in the way of the party’s success in the polls, would he step aside? “It doesn’t arise and I’m not getting into poll-watching, honestly.”
Would he say that he has a very strong sense of self-worth and that if it comes to anyone trying to dislodge him as leader, they’d have to fight that?
“I’m certainly not going into that. I wouldn’t put it the way you put it. I would say I’m somebody who has a clear sense of what they’re about. Take the party conference speech. That was a risky thing to do. Because leaders of the opposition come along and what you expect them to do is say ‘the government’s really crap and we don’t like what they’re doing’, right?
“I took a decision that I needed to make a bigger argument that wasn’t just about this government. It was actually about the way economic policy had been run in different ways, some of the assumptions of the last 30 years.
“That is our big argument, I said to somebody in this office. They said to me, in fact, ‘I don’t know what happens when leaders of the opposition make that kind of argument because it’s not what they do’. Well what happens was lots of people said they don’t like the argument, but 3 or 4 months later you know Clegg and Cameron are saying we’re sort of on the same page. That tells you something about them knowing that I’m making the right arguments….and Labour is shaping the battle of ideas and that is really important because I don’t think we were doing it at the last election.”
Does he deny that we have a Presidential element to our politics and that the leaders of the parties do matter as much as policy? "Let's let the public make a decision at the next general election about who they like and who they don't like. Of course it's important, but I'm saying that the most important thing for me to do is to talk about the issues that matter to people.”
On welfare reform, Labour defeated the Government this week in the Lords. Yet Miliband is keen to modernise the system, not least to help those in need. “I think the welfare state is too inadequate in some parts. If you look at child care, elderly care, social care, if you look at people who are falling back on benefits who are in middle class jobs, I think they’re finding it really tough. But you’re never going to build the support for the kind of system you want if people doubt the integrity of the system.”
Miliband makes clear that the austere times make it difficult to support a new Royal Yacht. Tony Blair has recently said that it was a mistake to axe Britannia, a cut that allegedly made the Queen cry. Does Miliband agree with Blair now that it was a mistake not to keep it?
"I don't, no, agree. And I think if you are asking about the now, I don’t think it's a priority for public money.” A campaign for a privately-funded new Yacht is underway, would he dip into his own pocket and hand over, say, a hundred pounds? "I'm not sure that...well, I don't know, if people come to me I'll investigate. I think the main principle for me to apply is public money and how public money should be spent. I give money to charity in different ways. There are obviously lots of deserving causes.”
Still, Miliband reveals that he was excited enough by the last Jubilee to join the wellwishers. “I will be taking part enthusiastically in the official celebrations. In 2002 I went with friends to The Mall. It was a great day to celebrate not just the Queen, which is important, but also Britain. Britain doesn't have an American independence day, [but] as I remember it in 2002, it sort of functioned as a way of a celebration paying tribute to the Queen's service but also a way to celebrate Britain.”
Funnily enough, when it comes to relaxing, Her Majesty is the title of an album by the last band Miliband saw live in concert: The Decembrists. He says he was ‘led astray’ by one of his staff to see American indie/folk group in Sheffield. Like the Camerons, Miliband and wife Justine like the arts when they can fit them in around childcare. For a birthday treat, he took Justine to see Jude Law in Anna Christie at the Donmar. At the movies, they saw Brad Pitt in Moneyball recently. Last weekend, the Milibands started watching The Killing II.
But does he have a less highbrow, ‘guilty pleasure’? “Desperate Housewives is what I often say...I should think of a new one.” What about secretly eating a Chocolate Orange? “Definitely not,” he smiles.
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