This piece appeared in The Big Issue in May 2015.
Let us be generous for a moment. Let us leave aside our weary scepticism and consider the possibility that senior politicians have feelings like the rest of us.
What about the emotional life of Ed Miliband, the 45-year-old man who wants to be your Prime Minister? What’s it like to feel so tantalisingly close to power and so close to failure, to hear the keys to No 10 rattling in the near distance, and the murmurings of political obituary writers, waiting to write him off as the man who could not shift the Tories?
It’s squeaky bum time, as Sir Alex Ferguson would say. The pressure is on. Yet Miliband has looked and sounded increasingly confident of late. Improved personal approval ratings suggest the British public is seriously sizing him up. But is it too late?
Having spent much of the first few years of his leadership fending off charges of inexperience, Miliband borrowed the tone of a blow-hardened boxer at his party’s recent manifesto launch. “It is right that I have been tested for the privilege of leading the country,” he said. “I am ready.”
The Big Issue joined him on the Labour battle bus in Leicester one sunny afternoon two weeks ago. We wanted to discover whether the readiness was legitimate, optimism genuine, and to try to discern where his priorities would lie if he manages to occupy Downing Street for the next five years.
Some of his team seem a little tired by the punishing schedule, but Miliband looks fit and healthy, showing no obvious sign of flagging. “It’s pretty full on but I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity to change the country.
“That’s not my opportunity,” he adds quickly, lest he sound too much like a man only on the verge of a career breakthrough. “That’s the country’s opportunity.”
I don’t think British people like the personal attacks very muchRecent personal attacks launched by both senior Conservatives and The Daily Mail have left no scars, he insists. “I’ve come to expect it,” he laughs. “I’ve seen quite a lot of it over the past four-and-a-half years. And they’d sort of warned they were going to have a personal campaign. I don’t think it works for them, really. I don’t think British people like the personal attacks very much.
“When you have The Daily Mail doing a feature on the people I’ve been out with, the women I’ve been out with, it’s not very nice for them [ex-girlfriends] and I sort of feel bad for them. Because I think, I’m in the front line so why should ex-girlfriends of mine suddenly be in newspapers?”
Miliband clearly feels his central message – “making the country work better for working people” (a soundbite he uses several times in the interview) – is cutting through where it counts.
Yet a couple of the flagship policies designed to promote a sense of fair play between the wealthy and ordinary “working people” – the mansion tax and the abolition of non-dom status – will be difficult to implement. Isn’t there a danger these measures will have to be watered down in government?
“No, they won’t be watered down and they’re both going to happen,” he insists. “There are people who don’t like the mansion tax but it’s the right thing to do. On the non-dom status – the idea we can carry on having people who live in this country, work in this country, be permanently settled in this country but not paying taxes is not on, as far as I’m concerned.
“Look, people are so cynical about politics, for reasons I understand. People think it’s just a bunch of broken promises. And that’s why we’re making promises we know we can keep.”
What might we expect from a Labour-led government on housing? Miliband says housing is “a first priority for capital investment” even if he remains vague about capital grants to fund more social housing.
Rent control is also on the agenda: Miliband wants to implement three-year tenancies in the private sector with rent rises agreed at the outset. He also wants a national register of landlords and measures to stop letting agencies from charging unfair fees.
Yet the rhetoric of all three main parties continues to revolve around helping first-time buyers “get on the ladder”. Does Miliband understand why renters feel ignored?
“I really care about it,” he says. “So many people get ripped off in the private sector. And we have the most comprehensive plan for dealing with that. People in the private rented sector have been ignored by successive governments, in truth. I really want people to know that we are going to make a difference.”
Miliband stops short of condemning the principles of David Cameron’s extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants in England (it’s a devolved issue elsewhere), but he reckons the Tory figures “just don’t add up” in a way that guarantees one-for-one replacement of affordable homes.
“We’re perfectly supportive of the Right to Buy but it’s got to be done in the right way,” he says. Does he fear the loss of social housing? “Yes – I definitely fear that from the Tory plan. It’s got to be done in a way that is funded and has more homes being built, not less.”
Scotland may come to be the undoing of Miliband’s ambitions. The SNP are enjoying a massive poll lead over Labour north of the border, and every gesture made by Scottish Labour boosts nationalist support. In sticking so rigidly with the Barnett Formula – in choosing to emphasise what Scotland stands to lose without Treasury support – Labour are losing Scottish voters increasingly fed up at being made to feel dependent.
“It’s about sharing and pooling resources across the UK,” says Miliband. “Look, I care about Glasgow, and I think people in Glasgow care about people in London. People in Cardiff care about people in Glasgow. I think we care about each other right across the United Kingdom and I think the notion we should separate ourselves off, or that it’s simply a question of shuffling money around, it’s not really the way I see it.”
Does he worry Scottish voters don’t believe Labour is offering substantial enough change? “Well, we are offering very substantial change, change agreed by the Smith Commission. It is what we call Home Rule for Scotland because it’s giving more powers over welfare, powers over income tax rates, powers over a whole range of things. It fulfills the vow that we made.”
As he leaves the battle bus in Leicester to step on a train back to London, Miliband remains in good spirits, nodding a few eager hellos at surprised-looking passengers in standard class.
It must be difficult to switch off. How does he relax? “I went for an Easter Egg hunt with my children on Easter Sunday,” he says, as if it were already a distant memory. “That was good.”
This is a man who lives and breathes politics, determined to remain the “happy warrior” (as his TV debate notes instructed) right up until May 7. What happens in the scramble for power and survival soon after remains anyone’s guess, but no doubt it will test the mettle of the battle-hardened Labour boss.