Still, at least it shows people are interested,” I say, and he nods. He doesn’t seem to mind, but then he seems far more at ease and comfortable in his own skin than you’d ever imagine possible after seeing him hounded from news bulletin to news bulletin last year. He poses obediently, and even when the Observer photographer asks him to look “more with it” and, “can you try and be a bit more … suave?” he takes it all in good part, cracking jokes about various things, mostly himself.
But then, the Ed Miliband conundrum might be why someone who is genuinely engaging in the flesh couldn’t project that on to a wider stage. Or maybe … he’s happier now?
Is it quite nice, at least, not to be fire-fighting the day-to-day stuff? He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t describe it as nice. I put my heart and soul into winning the election. And I think of all the people who are having more difficult lives because we have a Tory government.
“I feel deeply sad that it didn’t happen for the country, but I am determined to use what has happened to learn and also to carry on making the case for the things I believe in. You know … the history of progressive politics is that you have setbacks.”
As setbacks go, it was pretty crushing. A year ago, he was odds-on favourite to be prime minister. Now, he’s any other backbench MP. His office, in Portcullis House, Westminster’s modern annexe, however, displays something of his former status. It’s practically the penthouse: a top-floor corner suite with windows on two sides and sweeping views. In the corporate world, it would be a sign he’s made it. Here, it’s a sign he didn’t.
But he has agreed to meet to publicise a new documentary about inequality – The Divide, a film that was “inspired” by the influential 2009 book The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. He is doing it as a favour to the documentary makers – it’s a low budget, partly crowd-funded affair that struggled to get made – but it is also a mark of how he is starting to carve out a new role for himself.
“I said after the election that I would focus on climate change and inequality, because they are the two subjects I care deeply about. I don’t think the issue of inequality is going away and I’m not going to stop talking about it. And I have been reflecting on how we take this subject forward. I have been doing stuff in my constituency and I’m trying to think about the broader argument.”
Has it been something of a long, dark night of the soul? “It has been hard. It’s definitely been hard. Justine [his wife] said to me right after the election that there was no point in doing ‘Coulda, shoulda, woulda’. You know – ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I could have done that.’ And I think that’s right.”
Still, the most common accusation levelled at him is that he tried to take the party too far to the left. And then along came Jeremy Corbyn. Did you not think: hang on a minute?
“Not really. One of the reasons I stood down straight away was because I thought the party needed to have a debate about the direction I took the party in and what they wanted for the future, without me presiding over it.”
He speaks to Corbyn, he says, and tries to help where he can but, since the election, he has enrolled on a community-organising course in south London and taken on a campaign against a rent-to-own chain, Brighthouse, in his constituency, Doncaster North. He’s obviously feeling his way as to what comes next.
Inequality, he says, is the reason he got into politics in the first place and it’s the reason he wants to stay in politics. But, it’s such a tough gig, I say. To be CEO and then be booted back to the shopfloor.
“Them’s the breaks,” he says. “It’s the name of the game you’re in.”
But doesn’t it make you question the nature of that game?
“It’s funny but it doesn’t. I’ve never thought, ‘I wish I hadn’t gone through it.’ Or, ‘I should get out of politics.’ Or, not that I’m a gardener, but that I should go and tend my vegetables.
“I taught a bit at Harvard when I was there but I’ve never thought I want to be a full-time lecturer, because I care about change so much, about changing the world. I’m not going to do that as leader or prime minister, but I can do that in other ways. I think I can make a contribution.”
Isn’t it a bit soul-destroying at times, though, hanging out on the backbenches?
“It takes time to get used to it. But I do feel I’ve now gone through the hardest part. For me, personally, the hardest part was the period straight after the election and just trying to chart a new path.
“And look, the other thing is – I think this is important, I think David Cameron would say this and Nick Clegg – political life is incredibly punishing on family. I have young children. I get to see my kids in a way that was just not … I’m present. Genuinely present, if you know what I mean? I’m present when I’m present. Whereas before I might have been absent when I was present.”
He shakes his head when I try to get the inside story of baconsandwichgate, though I heard a riveting if terrifying account of it from someone on his team. The horror of the moment that the photographer from the London Evening Standard clicked the button (“we knew straight away”), the unedifying spectacle of the entire British press rounding on a breakfast item, and the car crash that followed.
It’s perhaps no surprise that he says he felt some sympathy for Cameron last week. “I certainly understand why he defended his dad and that it must be incredibly upsetting for his mum. […] But for 30 years, since Reagan and Thatcher, the basic view has been, ‘Be nice to the super-rich and their wealth will trickle down.’ That is the big lesson of Panama for me. It doesn’t trickle down; it gets stashed.”
It’s one of the reasons why he wanted to help promote the documentary. Katharine Round, director of The Divide, has tried to tell the human stories of what inequality feels like on the ground. “It shows the fabric of people’s lives. It’s the stress for the middle-class bloke as well as the insecurity for people in precarious jobs. It’s something I wrestled with as leader…how to show the impact.
“And it’s not going away. Look at what Bernie Sanders is campaigning on as an issue. And – this will sound like an odd thing to say, because I think he’s a vile candidate – look at Donald Trump: he is piggy-backing on the issue of inequality. He is saying people’s living standards are stuck and this is what is happening in people’s lives.”
Miliband’s harshest words, though, are reserved for Zac Goldsmith and his claims last week that Sadiq Khan is soft on terrorists. “I think Zac’s campaign is vile. I honestly think it’s vile. I’m quite shocked. I think he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. Honestly, it’s gross. A horrible Lynton Crosby tactic.”
And then, finally, there’s David, who also re-emerged in the past week to talk about Europe. I read out to him a quote his brother gave a journalist last year, where he said the election result was “the one I’d feared”. How did you feel reading that?
“I’m not going to get into that. Look, the important thing for me about my relationship with David is that we talk, we do the family stuff, I love him as my brother, and it’s important to me and important to him. We may have different views on aspects of politics, but that’s one of those things.”
But has there been a rapprochement since the election? “Yeah. I mean, we talk. As time passes, it becomes easier.” The ghost of Ed Past seems to enter the room briefly, the awkward, ill-at-ease one so familiar from last year’s bulletins. And then, moments later, he disappears again. New Ed is back. Or maybe he was there all along?
Author: Carole Cadwalladr