Ed Miliband on the BBC, political satire and why he never shouts at the news
Mark Lawson meets the Labour Party leader in a train compartment - and finds him on his guard
Tucked high up on the walls of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, like a collar stud, a plaque commemorates the laying of the foundation stone by Tony Blair, early in the first of his three terms as prime minister.
On the fifth floor, in the President’s Lounge of the Welsh Rugby Union, Ed Miliband is making a try to become the first Labour Party leader since Blair to win a general election. Surrounded by framed black-and-white photographs of massive men surging across the line or celebrating victory, the leader of the Opposition, taller and more commanding than he looks on parliamentary TV, stands at a lectern in front of red screens printed with the words: People’s Question Time.
Sitting between shelves heavy with rugby balls and champagne bottles, a representative selection of the Welsh people (supporters, sceptics, Tories) ask him about tax avoidance, dangerous dogs, Islamist terrorism, benefits cuts (all of which he is anti) and TV debates (pro). Every interrogator gets a “Good question” or “Thanks for asking that”, a tactic of flattery that is never tested, on this occasion, by any unfriendly questions about beating his brother David to the Labour leadership or polls showing doubts about Ed’s qualities.
One Labour voter refers to David Cameron’s “caricature of you for five years”, invoking the hapless combination of Mr Bean and Wallace from Wallace and Gromit that is the Conservatives’ preferred version of Miliband. And certainly, in this setting, he comes across as emotionally and intellectually intelligent and combative, much as he subsequently would on Channel 4’s Cameron & Miliband Live.
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A stand-out aspect of Miliband’s public style is how carefully he monitors his comments. “The Tories are sitting on – well, not literally sitting on...” he starts one answer in Cardiff. Expressing relief that the “zombie Parliament” (so-called because the Coalition has not produced enough legislation to fill the House of Commons schedule) will soon be dead, he hastily corrects himself: “Er, you can’t kill a zombie, can you?”
This verbal self-scrutiny is probably because he knows that so many in the media are crouched around like slip fielders waiting for a mistake. If Blair came to the Millennium Stadium to put down a stone, Miliband’s aim was to avoid dropping a brick, following a succession of media fusses including a public struggle to eat a bacon sandwich, and the inadvertent revelation during a TV interview that the Miliband house has two kitchens.
As a result, Team Ed is a little twitchy about interviewers, seemingly fearful that the first enquiry will be: “Have you ever momentarily forgotten which kitchen you were in while scarfing a breakfast sarnie?”
As is common in top-level politics, Miliband uses travel time for interviews, and Radio Times has been allocated the return leg of his Paddington–Cardiff ticket. I find the Labour leader in a window seat at the end of a standard- class compartment.
Political fiction is currently flourishing on television: the once unchallenged American superpower of The West Wing now rivalled by The Thick of It, Borgen, Veep and the remake of House of Cards. So is the leader of the Opposition addicted to any or all of these?
“None of them. Well, The West Wing yes, because it’s great fantasy politics, but The Thick of It no because it’s too much like reality. But when I watched The West Wing, it was before I was Labour leader and probably before I was a cabinet minister. And now... well, you probably wouldn’t rush home from a day of journalism to watch a show about journalists.”
Our conversation, though, is in the week before the screening of Coalition, the Channel 4 drama doc about the formation of the government he has spent five years fighting. Sounds like a must-see for him? “No. Definitely not. Funnily enough, one New Year’s Eve at a party, I bumped into the actor Ben Lloyd-Hughes, who played me in that Miliband of Brothers.”
I had been wondering how to bring up the Channel 4 satire on the rivalry between Ed and David. That had been appointment viewing, presumably? “No, no. Definitely not. I would never want to watch anything with me in it.”
But politicians have to get used to being caricatured in cartoons, on TV, in election posters. Do you have to adjust to that?
“Yeaahhhh.” The word is extended to give the sceptical version of the affirmative. “But it comes with the territory, really. I don’t find it deeply hurtful. Though it’s good that Spitting Image isn’t on.”
Told that a new puppet impressionist show, Newzoids, is due on ITV this week, Miliband reacts, in mock horror, “Oh, nooooo! Before the election?”
David Cameron, as prime minister, has operated as a sort of tweeter-in-chief, offering his views on public issues including the future of Jeremy Clarkson and even football team selections. Miliband’s view is that “something like Clarkson is a matter for the BBC”.
A BBC issue that the next prime minister will have to comment on – indeed, decide – is whether the corporation’s licence fee settlement should be renewed and, if so, for how long and at what price?
“I am a supporter of the BBC and I think it should be renewed. I’m not going to get into the level, which will be a matter for negotiation and discussion. I think it’s incredibly important that we protect the BBC. It’s recognised around the world and is a benchmark for standards in Britain.”
That speech will please Miliband’s former cabinet colleague, James Purnell, now the BBC’s £295,000-a-year director of strategy and digital, who might have written the sentiments himself. But other voices – inside and outside the BBC – are concerned that too much of the licence fee goes on expensive layers of management, not programme-making.
“Yes,” Miliband agrees. “There needs to be a balance. And the BBC needs to take seriously the issue of management salaries: all organisations should. But I think [BBC director-general] Tony Hall is taking it seriously. Obviously, people have their frustrations about the BBC, but that doesn’t take away from its importance.”
Overall, Labour’s broadcasting policy seems to be to keep things much as they are. Some in the BBC have argued for the restoration of Foreign Office funding of the World Service, but Miliband thinks it would be “hard to change it back now”. The Conservatives see it as an anomaly that Channel 4 is state-owned though advertising-financed and would privatise it, but Labour wouldn’t: “We’d keep it in the present ownership structure. It’s an unusual arrangement, but it gives you the best of both worlds because it has an extra public-service protection rather than having shareholders only seeking to maximise revenue.”
And whereas even Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, has said that the Trust should be replaced by a new governing structure, Miliband isn’t sure. “I’d have to be convinced that an alternative arrangement was better. It’s an odd situation but let’s look at it as part of the [BBC Charter] renewal.”
The one media issue on which all politicians have agreed for decades is the belief that the BBC is biased against them and in favour of their opponents. Does the Labour leader find himself shouting at news bulletins about his party?
“I tend not to watch the news, actually. That will sound a little strange. Look, I tend not to spend much time watching myself on TV.” His retrospective word-check whirrs. “Obviously, I do watch the news. But I tend not to shout at the screen.”
Beyond his sparing viewing of the news, Miliband has given the general impression of not being much of a TV watcher. When Game of Thrones and Top Gear comes up during our conversation, he admits to not being part of either audience.
Like most of us, though, he put in the sofa hours when growing up and his best-remembered show is possibly surprising: “Dallas is the one that comes to mind. And I used to watch Grange Hill. Also Not the Nine o’Clock News and Spitting Image. Frasier and Ben Elton on Channel 4.”
The traditional time signatures of the postwar generations – “their” Doctor Who and Blue Peter presenter – are, for him, Tom Baker and John Noakes. As a child, Miliband once saw the latter on King’s Cross station, although, like many heroes in the flesh, he proved “a bit disappointing”.
By Didcot Parkway, the RT questionnaire, which aides have been eyeing warily, can no longer be avoided. A politician’s caution shows in the ducking of any subjects – celebrity teen crush, who might play him in a movie – likely to encourage headline mockery. Scheduling an evening’s viewing for David Cameron, Team Miliband has a quick focus group before coming up with The Riot Club, a savage drama about posh Oxford drinking clubs such as the Bullingdon, of which the current PM was once a member.
At Paddington, Miliband leaves the standard-class compartment to go home – where he almost certainly won’t tune into the news.
The BBC Election Debate is on Thursday 16th April at 8pm on BBC1, or tune into Radio 5 Live at 7.45 pm