Interview: David Miliband

David Miliband on campaign funding, bananas and the private lives of politicians
David Miliband on campaign funding, bananas and the private lives of politicians

David Miliband talks to about campaign funding, bananas and the private lives of politicians.

By Alex Stevenson

After so many days, weeks and months on the Labour leadership campaign trail, after so many appearances and hustings and interviews, it would be unreasonable for David Miliband to say something original. That being said, I'm encouraged by his first reply. "How's it going?" I ask.

"It's quite interesting to have an election where the polls are relatively rare, where a lot of the electorate are quite hard to find," he begins thoughtfully. I brighten. Then out come the clichéd election soundbites, utterly predictable, utterly professional, rolling out one after another with all the monotonous reliability of an Atlantic swell. I'm told there's "all to play for". He's secured more nominations from MPs than any other candidate, "but what counts is the votes people are casting". He adds, agonisingly: "We're working for every vote."

Actually, David Miliband needs to. Reading of the tea leaves, which political journalists have resorted to in place of actual polling data, has suggested the frontrunner's status has been placed increasingly in doubt. Media rhetoric about a two-horse race with his brother Ed hasn't helped. Far from streaking into the lead, David Miliband's campaign needs to fight for every vote as attention focuses on Ed Miliband's prospects in the second preferences stakes. This race is still too close to call as the finish line approaches on September 25th.

He has more nominations from MPs than everyone else; more from constituency organisations, too. I suggest he also has the most money. "In inverted quote marks, I haven't 'got' more money than anyone else," he says irritably. "I've raised more money than anyone else." Then comes the professional answer. "It's an important role of a Labour leader to raise money. We need to raise millions to fight Ashcroft's millions." Having pledged to put a third of the money he's got - sorry, raised - into a fighting fund for the party, and a good quarter into the drive for community organising, Miliband has the right to a clear conscience.

It's his younger brother who's on the defensive over another issue which has overshadowed the campaign - the manifesto. Ed Miliband told in an interview published on Friday he has his regrets over the 2010 general election document. That admission was typical of the younger brother's approach, a bold distancing from a manifesto he had himself penned. David Miliband, perhaps seeking to present a more stable front, has been reluctant to move on so quickly. The result is a persuasive attempt to combine the need to move on with a sense of loyalty to New Labour.

"No one's saying we should be a slave to it [the manifesto] but, having argued for it very strongly... we've got to use it as a strong platform," he says. It might provide a "starting point" - but how does he characterise his position on it compared to the other candidates? The answer oozes with political skill. "As people know I didn't write the manifesto," he says. "But I defended it very strongly."

Tickets, please

The format of this interview suits close analysis. Miliband is speaking on the train from Paddington, slowly heading westwards away from the interviewer perching in the press offices next to Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster. He is repeatedly distracted, pausing to mutter instructions to his aides. At one point the signal cuts out. He is even interrupted by the guard. "You've got the tickets!" he hisses to a colleague.

Unable to read his body language, I retreat to a harder line of questioning. Specifically, I ask about the banana.

This yellow political nightmare is a constant chain around Miliband's ankles. Politics is a funny business and the image of him brandishing that banana at the 2008 Labour party conference in Manchester did lasting political damage. It came to symbolise his tameness after a summer of speculation about whether he would challenge Gordon Brown for the party leadership. It also, I suggest, contained a grain of truth about the public's struggle to understand politicians. Could it be the banana image has stuck in the absence of any other distinguishing features? Boris has floppy hair, Ken Clarke has his suede brogues. What marks David Miliband out?

"That's the deepest psychoanalytical..." he begins, before the ticket inspector causes mischief. "You've done more kremlinology about the banana than anyone else." I am proud. He pauses. Then comes the real answer.

"The most important thing for any of us is the people that we love and that is what makes us human," he says, slowly, thoughtfully, carefully.

"That's not something we go around advertising. Now, we then love our football teams, we have our holiday we enjoy, we have our favourite places and favourite people. That's something that comes out in due course."

And then, as if breaking free from the soundbites, he continues with a spark of passion entering his voice. "I think there's a real danger of underestimating the British public in this," he presses. "They want to see beneath the surface. And it's important that we respect that. They want consistency and they want clarity." Finally, more meekly, he adds: "The real person comes from those virtues."

The overall effect is seductive in its coyness, its simplicity. It is exactly what a professional politician on autopilot would say. Yet it is also clear David Miliband means it, in all its gawky, awkward truth.

On consistency, though, I press him about that very long seven-hour period in January when he failed to come out and defend Brown from the 'snowplotters', Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. I suggest Miliband had an opportunity, if he had turned on the prime minister, to give the plotters' campaign devastating momentum. He is unmoved. "When I'm asked about it, which isn't often," he says, "I always say the same thing: we agreed we would get on with the business of government." I roll my eyes, if it's possible to do that over the phone. "Integrity is very important, that's what I've shown, that's why I give the same answer," Miliband insists. He understands the rules of the game.

The 'Newest Labour' candidate

It is clear that, if Labour elects David Miliband as its next leader, it will be travelling the least distance from Tony Blair's legacy. What would he do if a pastor in the home countries, rather than Gainsville, Florida, caused international uproar by planning a Koran burning? "There are laws against incitement to religious hatred," he says decisively. Of course it's "utterly to be condemned". But "in this country it's against the law". The legislation has already been passed. Problem solved, New Labour supporters might suggest.

Let's try the single most divisive decision Tony Blair made during his decade in power. I can't help but suggest that the single word 'Iraq' might trigger some sort of an emotional response, perhaps an instinctive gut reaction of horror, or regret, or - anything. "No," he says, dismissively. "I wouldn't say that. I don't have an emotional reaction. I think of the loss of life, that is emotional; but I also think of the future of Iraq," he muses. "That is rational."

David Miliband is not Dr Spock. The answer is a thoughtful one, cautious within the bounds of the subject at hand, but earnest enough. Towards the end of the interview he tires, reeling off pre-approved lines that still have the air of the Foreign Office about them. "How many countries do you have on your list?" he mutters.

His supporters will say he is self-controlled. His hesitancy is just that great intellect kicking into gear. Asked if it's a problem that all five candidates went to Oxford, he replies: "I think that what counts is where you're going, not where you've come from. That is why I fought a campaign about the future of Britain, why I urged the Labour party to look outwards and not inwards."

And there we are - back to the soundbites. Alas, the insights couldn't last. But with the finish line in sight, and after so many interviews, I don't hold it against him.


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