Je ne regrette rien: Ed Miliband's definitive statement on Desert Island Discs

The Labour leader spoke openly to Kirsty Young about his relationship with his brother and the "the only time" he ever prayed.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Westminster listening to music. The place just doesn’t swing. Tony Blair, as we all know, liked to play a bit of guitar. “Dave” used to listen to The Smiths until he was banned. But what does Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, put on to unwind after a hard day defending his family and his party from the latest smears by the conservative press: Pete Seeger? “The Internationale”? Drenge?

Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs presents politicians with an opportunity to reveal a little character. To point in the direction of a hinterland, a “real me”, apart from the persona which boots up every morning between waking and arriving in SW1.

For some, the melodies that animate the inner life are alarmingly in tune with the ideas that feed the outer one. When Enoch Powell was asked to appear on the show in 1989, he told the producer: “Well, it’s bound to be Wagner.” And indeed it was. Powell chose four Wagner pieces: “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold, “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre, “Forging Song” from Siegfried and “The Renunciation of Siegfried” from Götterdämmerung (plus three Beethovens and a Haydn).

At least he refused to allow his list to become an instrument for populism: a focus-grouped stunt in which all boxes must be ticked to please voters. He told the truth. But over the years truth-telling has become de rigueur, developing into a fetish for guilty pleasure-ism. It’s hard to shake the image of the Iron Lady grinning senselessly to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys” (which she chose as her favourite record of all time) in 1979. Likewise, it's hard to forgive Jim Al-Khalili, who ought to know better, for grinning senselessly to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys” in 2010. I have little to say about “Dave” picking “Ernie: The Fastest Milkman In The West” as one of eight pieces of music he would hear repeatedly for the rest of his life if he were cast away on an island, other than the choice itself would be the only adequate punishment to suit the charge.

“Be honest” is what Sue Lawley, who presented the programme from 1986 to 2006, used to say to her guests. In 2010 LabourList asked Ed Miliband what he would pick if he were chosen for the show. His list, described as “recherche camp trendy” included a few lefty cap tips such as Paul Robeson’s (genuinely potent) “Ballad of Joe Hill” and Billy Bragg’s “A New England”, plus a couple of contemporary-ish numbers, Robbie Williams’s “Angels” (urgh) and Hard Fi’s “Stars of CCTV” (poseur bloke pop - where did they go?) He decided to take Ulysses in the hope of reading it, the trial thriller 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda and an iPhone (with no signal, or charger) as his non-musical extras.

So what has three years as chief babysitter at the Labour funhouse done for Miliband’s tastes? Here are those choices in full from this morning’s Desert Island Discs, presented by Kirsty Young:

  1. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika - From Cry Freedom arr. George Fenton
  2. Jerusalem - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, words by William Blake
  3. The Ballad of Joe Hill - Paul Robeson
  4. Take on Me - A-ha
  5. Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond
  6. Angels - Robbie Williams
  7. Josh Ritter - Change of Time
  8. Non, Je ne regrette rien - Edith Piaf

His book was The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, his luxury was an Indian takeaway once a week from his favourite Balti house, and the one record he’d keep, if he had to lose seven, would be “Angels”, to remind him of his wife Justine.

Early on in the programme Young asked whether Miliband regretted including his family (mainly his father) in his campaign speeches. The following half hour seemed to be an intensification of that decision, capped with the assertion that he does not regret it at all. “You can’t understand me without understanding where I come from,” he said. “My dad thought you could abolish capitalism - I don’t.”

He spoke movingly about Ralph Miliband's illness, when Ed was only 24. He recalled driving to the hospital, two days before his father died, as “the only time” he'd ever prayed. “If there’s a God, please don’t let this happen,” he said. “He was a lodestar. He was my father ... It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.” His choice of the hymn “Jerusalem” (from Blake's great poem Milton) was dedicated to his parents, a canny assertion that they loved the country which granted them sanctuary from the Nazis.

Miliband discussed his failed experiments with a violin (“screech city”), was grilled on Falkirk, trade unions and the Blair years, retold the story of his parents’ arrival in Britain, and even admitted to - shall we call it a dry spell? - being unable to find a girlfriend in university. After introducing his fourth choice, he said, “I was pretty square at university ... it’s no wonder I didn’t pull.”

Neil Diamond's “Sweet Caroline” was chosen because of his long-running passion for the Boston Red Sox, who recently won the World Series (“I stayed up until 4 in the morning to watch it!”), Robbie Williams’s “Angels” and Josh Ritter’s “Change of Time” were dedications to his wife, Justine, and the finale, Edith Piaf's “Non, Je ne regrette rien” fed directly into Kirsty's final line of questioning - on his relationship with David.

Young asked how Miliband’s mother, Marion Kozak, reacted to his choice to stand against his brother for the Labour leadership. “She was scrupulously neutral,” he replied. As for that central relationship with the king across the sea, are things now healed? “Healing,” he said.

Ed Miliband tried to play the violin in his youth. The result? "Screech city". Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.