Ed Miliband stands with his director of communications Bob Roberts as he waits to give an early morning television interview at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Confident Miliband passes the Today programme test

Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral speeches, the Labour leader has signature policies that he is prepared to defend.

After the conservative press responded to Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017 by branding him as a 1970s-style socialist and the energy companies warned of power blackouts, the Labour leader was called for the defence on the Today programme this morning.

To the former charge, he argued persuasively that it was Labour that was "the pro-competition party, the pro-market party" because it wanted "markets to succeed, not fail" by working "in the public interest". To the latter, he said that on "any reasonable scenario", the companies would be able to cope, implying that they were resorting to scare tactics. He conceded, however, that in the event of major price shocks, "companies could make their case to the government."

On the danger of firms hiking prices in advance of the election in order maximise their profits, he replied: "we will make sure that this is a genuine freeze and we will take action to make sure that happens." That implies that Labour would seek to peg prices to their 2014 level were companies to raise prices in 2015. Milband added that the freeze would not be extended beyond 2017 because he expected to have "reformed the energy market" by then.

One important test of a conference speech is whether it can withstand scrutiny the following day and Miliband ably cleared that hurdle this morning. Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral addresses, he came armed with signature policies that he was prepared to argue for. He has also adopted a notably softer and more measured speaking style.

By taking on the energy companies, Miliband is confident that he has picked a battle that can only have political benefits. In highlighting threats of blackouts from the sector, Tory MPs have walked straight into his trap by appearing to side with the companies over the consumers. Labour is confident that voters will agree that, in Miliband's words, "the fundamental problem at the heart of the market is that wholesale prices go up and people pay more, and wholesale prices go down and people still pay more."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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