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Ed Miliband is going down a storm with the students of Hazelwood college in north Belfast. He looks relaxed. He is self-deprecating and engaging, unrecognisable from the wooden, supposedly hapless and electorally toxic figure portrayed by his critics — the man said by some to be leading his party to electoral defeat in the general election on May 7.

Miliband chats happily with the teenagers, discussing the pitfalls of social media, advocating votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, attacking tax-dodging multinationals; he is funny, and free of the usual soundbites crafted by his office to keep him out of trouble. Then one student asks Miliband if politics is only open to people of a certain class, and the Labour leader’s eyes flash: “I’m the son of two immigrant parents who fled the Nazis,” he says. “If you said to my grandparents I was the leader of the Labour party and may be the next prime minister, they would have been pretty surprised.”

Others would be surprised, too, if Miliband wins the election. David Cameron says he is “useless”; Tony Blair has suggested his Labour successor’s programme is too leftwing to get him into Number 10 and business leaders complain that he has no interest in the workings of a capitalist economy — with the boss of Boots this week saying a Miliband government would be “a catastrophe”. No opposition leader has ever won an election trailing the incumbent prime minister both on leadership qualities — Populus pollster Rick Nye says he fails the “blink test” when voters are asked if they can imagine Miliband in Downing Street — and economic competence. George Osborne, the chancellor, says that “water would have to start flowing uphill” if Labour is to overcome these two obstacles to win the election.

Yet Miliband does not look like a broken man. On the way out into the crisp Ulster morning, the students crowd round him, grabbing selfies. There is a collective sense of surprise that Miliband has not turned out to be completely “weird” — the word selected by 41 per cent of people in a recent poll to describe him. “I think he’s a brilliant speaker,” says Caoimhe Boyd, a 17-year-old student. “He’s more down to earth than I expected.” Leo Kamutsi, another sixth-former, agrees: “I think he’s a nice guy, a genuine bloke. I think he would be a suitable prime minister.” But Miliband’s problem is not with the students of Hazelwood — Labour does not field candidates in Northern Ireland and most of them are too young to vote anyway — but with the rest of the country. As Miliband heads into Belfast for a round of political talks, an aide jokes: “Now we just have to get him to meet 20 million voters.” With the general election only three months away, the Labour leader is running out of time.

 . . . 

Whatever people might think of Edward Samuel Miliband when they meet him, the polls suggest he is the least popular British opposition leader on record — albeit at a time when all mainstream politicians are unpopular. In November 2010, in the first flush of his Labour leadership, he had an approval rating of +20; four years later it had sunk as low as -55 in a YouGov poll.

While Miliband might have sparkled in front of an audience of students, when faced with hostile questioning — for example, from a business audience — he can appear lacklustre and defensive. “He’s great when he’s with a group of people and it’s a subject he’s interested in,” said one Labour-supporting businessman. “But if he doesn’t agree, he gets quite sulky and doesn’t engage.” Even Miliband’s closest advisers admit the Labour leader’s performance can veer from sparkling to underwhelming. “You never know which Ed is going to turn up,” says one. “With Cameron it’s always the same.”

One of the infamous May 2014 'bacon buttie' pictures

Cartoonists parody him as a Mr Bean character or draw attention to his resemblance to Wallace, the bumbling plasticine inventor from Wallace and Gromit. Miliband, a thoughtful politician described as “calm and principled” by his supporters, has found it impossible to escape the caricature.

Pictures of him grappling with a bacon buttie became an internet sensation; last month a former supporter revealed how he let a young Miliband — then seeking a parliamentary seat — stay at his house in Doncaster, only for the future Labour leader to lock himself inside the house and set fire to a carpet, almost asphyxiating himself. Miliband later replaced the carpet with a £25 Muslim prayer mat.

A poll by Lord Ashcroft, a Tory millionaire, recently asked members of the public to compare their political leaders to animals. David Cameron, the prime minister, was found to resemble “a fox, being smart and sleek or — less charitably — a giraffe looking down on everybody”. Miliband? “One of those animals that, when you go to the zoo, you’re not bothered whether you see it or not.”

The polls are so unremittingly grim for Miliband personally that it is easy to forget that his party is still in contention to win the election. Indeed, the Labour leader is convinced he will become Britain’s prime minister in three months’ time, and that voters will embrace his agenda of tackling inequality and taming the excesses of capitalism.

Meeting Miliband in person can come as a shock to those who have formed their view of him through the prism of a hostile press or through his stiff, soundbite-ridden television appearances. Sipping a black Americano in Belfast City Airport’s coffee bar, he is witty and animated, exuding an almost boyish earnestness. His dark eyes are less panda-like away from the television lights.

“Well, I think leaders of the opposition always have a battle,” he says, reflecting on how he took over a party in autumn 2010 whose spirit had been crushed in a general election months earlier. “I think if you’d said to most people in our party four-and-a-half years ago, this election will be ours to win — which I think it is — people wouldn’t have believed us.”

Miliband’s Labour critics do not share his confidence. So much so that, last autumn, party grandees gauged whether they could stage a coup by toppling the leader and installing the popular former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson in his place. Miliband denied talk of a coup last November as “nonsense”. But the FT has learnt that two Labour grandees — Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, and Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press chief — took soundings from Johnson to see whether he was prepared to take over. “Alan gave an emphatic No,” says one Labour MP. Another senior party figure claimed that at least 40 MPs supported the abortive coup — others claim far more. Johnson, a former postman, has discovered a new and less stressful life as an author.

Miliband was angry with the unrest but allies say that the episode was indicative of a character trait which the public rarely see in the Labour leader: a remarkable and intense self-belief. “I never saw him nervous, shaky, scared,” says Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP who ran Miliband’s leadership campaign. “There was just a frustration that people were distracted by that nonsense.” Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, says: “People underestimate him at their peril. There is a steely core there.” Peter Hain, one of the few senior Labour MPs to back Miliband in the leadership contest, speaks of his “courage, vision and utter determination”.

Does Miliband never wake up and wonder whether Labour chose the right brother in that fratricidal leadership contest: that it might have done better opting for David, the older brother, the former foreign secretary adored by Hillary Clinton, the more experienced figure? “Definitely not,” he says firmly. “On the issues that matter most I’ve been proved right: on the cost of living, on responsible capitalism, on the challenge of the vested interests, inequality. I think Britain needs a Labour government and Britain needs a Labour government led by me.”

 . . . 

Ed Miliband was born in 1969, the younger of two sons born to Ralph Miliband, a Belgian-born Marxist academic of Polish Jewish origin, and Marion, a Polish Jew and human rights campaigner. The family settled in Primrose Hill, now one of the most exclusive areas of London.

At the family home with his father Ralph, 1989

Much has been written about Ralph Miliband’s influence over Ed’s politics — one shadow cabinet minister says “it’s all about daddy” — although the Labour leader jokes that his father would be disappointed by the scale of his ambitions. “We are talking about how we are going to reform capitalism, not abolish it as my dad would have wanted.”

A defining moment in the young Ed’s life was when, at the age of 12, he went to Boston for several months to keep his father company while he was teaching in the US. He recalls how the two went bowling — and, in a conspicuously un-Marxist moment, to McDonald’s — and Ed developed his love of baseball, and the Red Sox in particular.

“That was quite a special time, because to be with one’s dad without my mum or my brother was really sort of interesting,” he says. “Obviously, I missed my mum and my brother but it was quite a thing.” Why did he go? “My dad was just incredibly lonely, frankly, and my parents thought, well, it may be nice for you to go and have the experience of going to a junior high school in America.”

The Miliband home was intensely political. “For the purposes of being children they treated us like we were kids, but for the purposes of adult conversation they treated us like we were adults. But it was not Marxism over breakfast.”

The 45-year-old describes himself as “an atheist Jew” but says his Jewishness is “a big part of my heritage”. Friends say the Milibands rarely spoke about the Holocaust when the boys were growing up but, recently, Miliband has started speaking more freely about his family.

When he does talk about the Holocaust, as he did again last month in a moving speech to the parliamentary press corps, Miliband finds his own voice. He told the press dinner how recently he learnt for the first time about the death of his maternal grandfather in a Nazi labour camp 70 years ago. For his family, politics was “a matter of life or death”.

Edward and David studied at the same north London state school, which the younger Miliband describes as “an extraordinary place with massive diversity — class diversity, racial diversity, diversity of backgrounds”. During his trip to Belfast Miliband tells students that he was “very good at physics and maths” at school and today he often approaches political decisions as if they were mathematical problems. Aides describe how he can read through policy details and spreadsheets for hours on end. David and Ed then attended the same Oxford college, Corpus Christi, and took the same degree: philosophy, politics and economics.

Both David and Ed worked as backroom boys in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but here their political paths diverged. Ed stayed loyal to his mentor Brown, with an emphasis on the traditional leftwing theme of redistribution of wealth, while David helped his boss Blair pursue closer links with business and his attempt to reform public services.

While working with Brown at the Treasury, cabinet ministers started to note that the earnest Ed Miliband was starting to show some political mettle. “Ed was fearless,” said one minister who watched the young adviser help Brown in one of his regular confrontations with Blair. “He would sit in a room behind Gordon and Ed would tell him how to respond. It was like Thomas Cromwell. Tony could hear him.”

In June 2007, Brown became prime minister and brought the two Miliband brothers into his cabinet — the first time siblings had served together at the top of government since 1938. David became foreign secretary while Ed had more of a backroom role at the cabinet office, before later becoming the minister for tackling climate change.

As Brown’s premiership limped to its conclusion in 2010, talk turned to a future leadership contest. David was the clear frontrunner while Ed — given the task of drafting the Labour election manifesto — did not even feature on the radar screens of many cabinet ministers.

As the new party leader, being hugged by his brother David, 2010

“I don’t think any of those in the cabinet thought of him as being a candidate,” says one minister in the Brown government. “But when he was writing the manifesto he had endless meetings with trade union general secretaries, even during the campaign itself. Nobody had any idea. But you have to take your hat off to him: the machinating was superb.”

Ed Miliband was later able to call on the support of those union barons to help him win the leadership, offering them the promise of a break from New Labour with its pro-business stance and political “triangulation” intended to keep the party in the political centre. In other words, a break with the position occupied by his brother.

“I obviously thought quite long and hard about this, what was the right thing to do,” he says. Ed’s decision to run against his brother is said to have broken the heart of his mother Marion, now 80, but the Labour leader suggests he had a duty to run. “I felt I had something distinctive to say about the Labour party and where it should go and how it should move on from New Labour, and that I was the best person to take the party in that direction,” he says.

Miliband offers a programme in which the state intervenes to open up sectors like energy and banking to more competition and acts as a guiding hand to make capitalism work more “fairly” — by boosting skills and incentivising companies to pay higher wages, for example. Higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, would pay for improved services: Miliband wants to cut the cost of going to university.

As with Ralph, the Marxist theoretician, Ed Miliband believes the battle of ideas was paramount; in this case more important than family bonds. Framed like that, Miliband rationalises his decision to run against his brother not in terms of personal ambition but the pursuit of ideology. Indeed, friends say that the one thing that makes Miliband most angry is when he sees colleagues nakedly putting political ambitions ahead of the party. One says: “He doesn’t like people being self-important and vain or in it for themselves.” Staff say that such behaviour can move him to rare outbursts of shouting, laced with heavy-duty expletives.

Miliband admits the leadership contest caused anguish to his older brother. “It was hard, and then, obviously, after the leadership election, continued to be hard. But I think now he’s got this job with the International Rescue Committee [the New York-based humanitarian organisation], which is a good job, it sort of feels like the world has moved on and so have we.” Does he see much of David now? “I see him when he’s over here and we talk. It was tough, but it feels a lot easier and better now.” Friends of the former foreign secretary are not so sure.

Nevertheless, Ed Miliband’s self-belief became apparent during the leadership contest, not just in the audacity to run against his brother but in his apparent certainty he would win. “I was always pretty much convinced I was going to win,” he says. A friend confirms this. He remembers the Labour leader seeing his brother on television and saying: “Poor David, he just doesn’t realise he’s going to lose.” One former ally of Miliband says: “In a way, he is just like David. Both have a deep sense of being right the entire time. Where does it come from? It is the ideological certainty of his father combined with the unconditional love of his mother.”

Miliband lives today in a five-storey house in Dartmouth Park, north London, with his two young sons, Daniel and Sam, and his wife Justine, an environmental lawyer and former child actress whom he met in 2002; she is credited with giving the Labour leader a grounding in the world outside politics.

“Love, joy, patience, support” are the qualities Miliband attributes to Justine, although it is clear the Labour leader’s political role does not allow for the most scintillating of social lives. “What do we do in the evenings?” he says, pensively looking into his coffee. “I sometimes watch telly. We watched half an episode of Broadchurch on Tuesday night.”

With his wife Justine at the 2014 Labour conference

He has little interest in fine dining — lunch is often a half-eaten sandwich — and even less in alcohol. One former ally recalls being served glasses with minuscule quantities of wine from a half-empty bottle at the Miliband home: “It was like receiving communion,” he says. His staff say he can stay up late reading papers, making phone calls at 1am — and he devours political commentary. He gave up his iPhone in 2013 because he was obsessively following Twitter and political blogs. But unlike Cameron, Miliband does not do his best work in the morning: “My secret is I’m not a brilliant morning person,” he says. If the children jump on him to wake him up, he “does not like it”.

On the few occasions Miliband attends a social event, he is usually armed with briefing notes on the guests. The hazards of such an approach were exposed at a reception where he started chatting, apparently knowledgeably, about the popular BBC soap opera EastEnders with star actor Danny Dyer. When pressed, Miliband admitted he had never watched the programme.

 . . . 

Miliband decided to confront his dire image problem in a speech last July. “I’m not from central casting,” he said. “You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace.” While David Cameron was “a very sophisticated and successful exponent of a politics driven by image”, here was a man interested in substance and ideas. But the speech was an admission of defeat. After all, one of his principal selling points in the Labour leadership contest in 2010 was that he could connect with voters. His campaign sported banners proclaiming that “Ed speaks human” — a dig at David Miliband, who supposedly possessed inferior communication skills. Yet Miliband’s glaring political problem is that he has been unable to transmit any of that to voters, either through a hostile print media or — much more importantly — through the medium of television.

But is Miliband right? If voters can get past the nasal voice, the cartoon-friendly features and the pictures of him doing battle with a bacon sandwich — “it is possible they have not yet reached some yak farmers in Nepal” — will they discover a politician with almost old-fashioned virtues of integrity and ideas: a 21st-century Clement Attlee? Would he make a good prime minister?

Temperamentally, Miliband seems up to the task. Four years of relentless media criticism and internal attacks have not crushed him. “He’s got a thick skin — something Gordon didn’t have,” says one former cabinet minister. While a tortured Gordon Brown stayed up all night muttering to himself “too many mistakes”, Miliband has a preternatural idea that he is doing the right thing. His friends say he does not consider for a minute that he is weighing his party down. Peter Hain says he is a good chairman: “He is very easy, relaxed, quite witty. He asks someone to lead on an issue, then brings other people in on it.” Alistair Darling says: “In terms of decision-making and ensuring he gets things done, he’s perfectly capable of that.”

Yet Miliband’s critics say he can be remote, cocooning himself inside his Edwardian office overlooking the Thames with like-minded leftish policy wonks and cut off from senior MPs in his team. It is noteworthy how few shadow cabinet ministers are prepared to go out and publicly fight for Miliband when he is in trouble.

“He’s a mixture of indecision and dogma,” says one senior Labour figure about his leadership style. But his supporters argue that Miliband can make bold moves once he has analysed a problem, whether standing up to Rupert Murdoch’s powerful press empire over phone hacking, taking on energy companies or refusing to support British military action in Syria in 2013.

“With Syria we had to take decisions very quickly,” says one shadow cabinet member. “Ed was briefed in Downing Street on the situation and Obama wanted to move, but Ed had confidence and conviction. He’s sometimes at his best when he’s ignoring advice.” Cameron saw Miliband’s behaviour as despicable, “playing politics” with national security issues.

However, other decisions can take weeks or months — such as the decision to oppose Cameron’s in/out EU referendum — as Miliband agonises with trusted allies and members of his inner circle. “I think being measured in the decisions you make is quite an important quality in somebody who wants to be prime minister,” Miliband says.

 . . . 

Whatever Miliband’s personal qualities, it is his ideas that concern his critics most, particularly those in business and the City. Miliband rejects the “Red Ed” tag attached to him at the start of his leadership but one senior City figure says: “There’s no doubt in the minds of the business community that he’s the most leftwing Labour leader since Michael Foot.” A policy prospectus which includes a “mansion tax”, a restored 50p top rate of tax, a bank bonus tax, price controls in the energy sector and possible seizures of land from “hoarding” property speculators was never likely to endear him to big business.

Miliband says he wants to tackle two “generational questions” if he wins the election. The first is “how to maintain openness as a country” — an agenda which he hopes will neutralise some business criticism of Labour ahead of polling day. Miliband wants to keep Britain in the EU and keep open its borders, albeit with tweaks to immigration rules, in the face of pressure from the UK Independence party to do the opposite.

But Miliband’s real burning interest is in the second “generational question”: tackling inequality. “This is not about resentment of people who do well,” he says. “I want people to do well. That is essential if we are to succeed as a country. What this is about, however, is a sense of fairness and the idea that those with broad shoulders should bear the greatest burden.” Miliband notes Obama’s recent focus on the fracturing of society and the advantages of the top 1 per cent: “Clearly that would make him a communist in the eyes of some people. And they would be wrong.”

If Miliband is interested in the process of wealth creation that might fund his socialist ideas, he seldom lets on. Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, says: “It is not that Ed is pro or anti-business, he is ‘abusiness’ — he doesn’t relate to it or understand its needs, values or concerns.” A common refrain is that when business leaders meet Miliband and his inner circle, they hear reassuring noises, but the Labour leader then appears the next day with another speech attacking some other aspect of what he has labelled “predatory” capitalism. Even those in his inner team admit the attacks on “irresponsible” business can seem “a bit relentless”.

New Labour figures like Lord Mandelson, Alan Milburn and Lord (John) Hutton — cabinet ministers in the Blair era — complain that Miliband has dangerously ceded the mantle of economic competence to David Cameron. Critics claim Miliband has crafted a narrow policy prospectus aimed at winning 35 per cent of the vote — just about enough for a Labour victory — which might appeal to the poor and disadvantaged but which has little appeal to the voters of middle Britain.

Although Britain’s economy is growing and unemployment is low, Miliband paints a dispiriting picture of modern Britain, a country which he claims is one of “food banks and bank bonuses”. He says his message is one of optimism and hope but Liz Kendall, a Blairite shadow minister, warned recently that politicians should guard against sounding like “the man moaning in the pub”.

Miliband disagrees with the idea that he held his party together after its 2010 defeat by failing to take it out of its comfort zone, arguing he has reformed Labour’s relations with the unions, toughened the party’s stance on immigration and made it clear that the party would have to cut public spending in most areas. “I actually think I’ve put the party in the right place to win the election and the right place to govern the country,” he says as the final call is announced for the flight back to London. “This is an economy which isn’t working for most people. It’s a strategy of reaching out to people right across the country in all parts of the United Kingdom, so I totally reject the idea that somehow this is about a narrow section of the electorate — quite the contrary.”

But for all Miliband’s confidence, a mood of despair is common among Labour MPs returning to Westminster after campaigning in their constituencies, listening to voters complain about the leader. “Some of our colleagues think optimism is an eye disease,” Alan Johnson quipped last month. Miliband’s office believes some senior figures — notably Andy Burnham, the health spokesman — are already preparing their leadership bids in the event of a Labour election defeat. “If the election is to be lost, they aren’t going to be blamed,” says a former cabinet minister. “Ed will carry the can entirely on his own from their point of view.”

One Labour MP — a supporter of Miliband in the leadership contest — says: “He’s not a presidential figure in a presidential contest. Can we win? No. We don’t mention him on the doorsteps and it will be interesting to see how many people put him on their leaflets. His relationship with his brother must be terrible. It’s tragic he has given up so much for something he’s not very good at. It was too big a step up for him.”

But Miliband’s political opponents are not so dismissive. David Cameron is trying to avoid holding a television debate with the Labour leader on the grounds that Miliband’s public standing is so low, it could only improve if he was given an “unmediated” chance to talk directly to voters. Lord (Chris) Patten, a former Tory chairman, says: “The thing that would worry me most is that in the campaign Miliband might come across a lot better than the press has said he is: he’s a highly intelligent guy, a good debater.” James Chapman, political editor of the Miliband-baiting Daily Mail, tweeted after Miliband’s speech to the Westminster press dinner: “Superb speech. Another reason for Cameron to dodge those TV debates.”

It will be hard to shift a public perception of him built up over several years of hostile media coverage and time is running out. “Let’s see how it goes. I think the opportunity for the public to hear from me over the course of the three-and-a-half months is a huge opportunity for us.” His critics would say it is another example of self-delusion. But it is also another sign of the Labour leader’s self-belief.

Sadiq Khan tries to explain: “It’s not arrogance. It’s confidence in the decency of the British people. He believes he will win the general election. He believes in the best of people: there’s something almost romantic about it.”

Miliband finishes his coffee and throws on his blue jacket. He knows he is facing a torrid time at the hands of the Tory-supporting press but insists he is ready for it. “If we were miles behind in the opinion polls they wouldn’t be doing it, ” he says, as he heads for the plane. “It’s because they fear I’m going to win.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Jim Pickard is the FT’s chief political correspondent

Portrait: Greg Funnell

Slideshow photographs: Richard Wade

Photographs: Getty; Bloomberg; Eyevine; Merlin Press

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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