Ed Miliband was in Nottingham last Tuesday when a man approached him to say that his part-time job at a petrol station wasn’t paying enough to take care of two children. This is an anecdote of the sort Miliband is always telling in his campaign to lower Britain’s cost of living, but what the man said next was “chilling.”
“He was really, really desperate because he felt couldn’t properly provide for his family,” Miliband recalls. “He was thinking of ending it all because he just couldn’t make ends meet.”
“Suddenly bacon sandwiches look slightly beside the point,” Miliband says.
We’re on the train back to London from Newark-on-Trent, where the Labour leader has spent the day campaigning in the forthcoming by-election, touring the town’s hospital in support of his party’s candidate who has no chance of winning in a two-way battle between the Conservatives and UKIP.
In the course of a 45-minute interview, conducted in a packed standard class carriage, Miliband told BuzzFeed why he’s convinced that the cost of living crisis is still very real despite the economic recovery, why he eschews 24-hour TV news in favour of Thomas Piketty, and how he’s come to understand why decent people would vote UKIP.
The discussion follows a mixed week for the Labour leader, dominated by his party’s so-so performance in the local and European elections. Although Labour made substantial gains, it did not deliver the knock-out blow to the Conservatives that would set it up for an easy victory in the 2015 general election.
Labour still has a narrow poll lead and the party’s proposals on freezing energy prices and making moves to redistribute wealth are fairly popular. But the main obstacle at times appears to be Miliband’s public image — he’s still perceived as wonky and weird, a man whose encounter with a mere bacon sandwich went viral.
Miliband’s answer, he says, is to ignore the news cycle and to focus on the “main prize.” And he really means the part about ignoring the news. There are no TV screens showing rolling news channels in his office and he has no newspapers delivered to his home. Instead he relies on aides to summarise what’s going on in the world.
Miliband, wearing a red tie and with his BlackBerry on the table, says his favourite news website is RealClearPolitics, an American site that aggregates political news stories, where he keeps up with what he sees as a new global politics of inequality. He tries to steer his internet use away from Twitter, saying he’s had a “decidedly mixed record” on the service, perhaps alluding to the time a fat-fingered message saw him (or, more likely, a member of his staff operating his account) accidentally pay tribute to Bob Holness as the host of ‘Blackbusters’.
“It’s always a good idea not to read the newspapers,” he offers by way of justifying his claim that he hasn’t read a series of stories about alleged in-fighting between Douglas Alexander and Michael Dugher, two leading Labour MPs who are members of his campaign team.
“I don’t read much British news. You get a lot of advice in the newspapers about what you should do. It’s much more important to follow your own path and stick to your own path. I’ve made that a rule in the last three and a half years.”
But Miliband has been paying enough attention to track the changing attacks from Tory leaders and right-wing news outlets. And he said that he sees progress even there.
“Think about the attacks my opponents have been making on me, there’s a certain incoherence about their attacks. First of all they said I was ‘Red Ed’, then they said I was weak, then they said it was back to the 1970s, and now it’s something else.”
Is part of the problem that the public believe he is, well, a bit weird? “Frankly they were saying that… the press people who don’t like us have been saying that for some time. It comes with the territory. I think the heart of this is people think we are in a position to win the election and there are some people who don’t want us to win this election.”
Nobody brought Ed’s image up at Newark Hospital, where the nurses were more concerned about the funding available for key services and gave a cautious welcome to the Labour leader’s commitment to make it easier and faster to arrange an appointment with your local doctor. (“I’m voting for him, which will be enough to cancel out my husband’s vote,” said one nurse.)
And nobody brought it up on the drizzling streets of Newark, where David Cameron has already visited three times, where William Hague campaigned on Wednesday morning out of the Tories’ slick headquarters, and where, despite all this, the energy and the fun seemed clearly to be with the rag-tag UKIP volunteers occupying the centre of the market square and hoping to pull off an upset in the by-election.
A small group of UKIP supporters had planned to ambush Miliband’s visit to the local newspaper office with a giant UKIP sign but thought better of it, concluding that such activities were beneath them now that they were a mainstream political party. While Labour support was thin on the ground, Nigel Farage’s party enjoyed a generally warm reception in the historic town, though two passing Lithuanian men shouted across the street that they knew the party is “anti-foreigner” and didn’t want their fliers.
UKIP’s prominence is a problem for Labour. By this point in the electoral cycle Miliband would want to be the main story. Instead Nigel Farage’s party stole his thunder – and a substantial number of his voters – at last week’s European Parliament elections. They may not pose a threat to Labour at the general election but they’re shaping the political debate.
In response Miliband has changed tone in the last few days, saying that he understands widespread concerns about immigration pushing down wages for the low paid: “The vast, vast majority of people who voted UKIP are concerned for understandable reasons. It’s not about prejudice. It’s about genuine concern about the country having changed.”
But he cautions against promising to restrain immigration: “David Cameron has hopelessly failed to meet his target of cutting immigration down to tens of thousands and that just adds to people’s cynicism.”
Miliband, himself the son of an immigrant, insists that his party must drop the idea that “that if you’re concerned about immigration you’re prejudiced”. He sympathises with the people in his Doncaster constituency who see new arrivals driving down wages by accepting jobs for below the minimum wage. And he wants public sector workers who deal with the population to be required to speak English.
Instead he believes the way to placate people who are concerned about immigration is to give them hope that they will be able to get a good job and afford a house of their own: “You can’t tackle the problem of immigration without changing our economy.”
And despite the UK economy growing he says a message based on a cost-of-living crisis is not defunct. “Any good news in the economy is a good thing, any time things get better is a good thing,” he insists. “But as I go around the country and talk to people and they will say – I’m on a short hours contract, I can’t make ends meet, I’m worried about my son or daughter getting a house.”
“Even people who consider themselves relatively well off are saying where is this country going and what’s in it for me. Somewhere along the way ordinary working people who were struggling got left behind. It started before the financial crisis – or you could date this before the financial crisis. I personally think it’s got a lot worse under this government.”
Miliband says he doesn’t anticipate taking a proper holiday between now and next May’s general election. He’s just spent a long day on the campaign trail in Newark despite having little chance of winning the seat for his party. And he says he’ll be “back in harness next week.”
Instead his main diversion from politics and family life — he has two young children — is American baseball, which he famously became devoted to as a boy in Boston. Aside from Piketty (and he’s only a “few pages” in) his favourite diversion is the Major League Baseball app on his iPad.
Miliband also roots for Leeds United, and has struggled to interest his sons in American sports. But his boys, aged three and four, are instead showing an affinity for Arsenal and watched the club’s FA Cup final victory over Hull with their father.
“I want them to make their own decisions about who they support,” the Labour leader says, suggesting he could take them to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, close to the family’s North London home, in the future.