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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.