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Ed Miliband: "The biggest enemy is not enthusiasm for the Conservatives"

Rafael Behr spent the day on the campaign trail with the Labour leader - a day that took a dramatic turn with news that Thatcher is dead.

The early-afternoon train from Ipswich to Cambridge is quiet enough for Ed Miliband’s entourage to sprawl across several rows of seats. The Labour leader is at a table near the back of a standard-class carriage – the centre of a bivouac of advisers, press officers, party photographers, their bags and papers. He is focusing intently on his BlackBerry, editing text on the tiny screen. It isn’t the ideal implement for drafting a statement, and Marc Stears, an old university friend and adviser, slides into an adjacent seat and proffers his iPad instead.

Two minutes have passed since word arrived that Margaret Thatcher has died. In roughly 15 minutes the train will reach its destination, where Miliband will have to broadcast his reaction. The mood is urgent but there is no panic. Miliband’s features barely flickered when an aide leaned across the table to deliver the news. He absorbed the data with a slow nod. “Oh. Right.”

Now, his face is a mask of solemn concentration. The task is clear enough. The Labour Party is steeped in enmity towards Thatcher but its leader must find words that address the occasion without partisan rancour. The gravity of the moment and respect for a family’s bereavement must somehow be combined with acknowledgment of a political legacy that divided the country and, in the eyes of the left, inflicted social wounds that are yet to heal.

Opposite Miliband sits Tom Baldwin, another senior adviser, taking a call from Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader and the first shadow cabinet minister to make contact since the news broke. He passes the phone to Miliband to confirm briefly the contours of the response. The draft statement is emailed around the table from phone to phone; a handful of calls are made to senior party figures back in Westminster.

There isn’t time for rumination on the wider significance of the moment. Only one political decision is made within seconds of the news breaking. Miliband declares a suspension of the local election campaign he was supposed to be launching today. A ripple of logistical calls rolls down the carriage.

The text is still being finalised as the train pulls in to Cambridge. Then there is a brisk stride to a waiting car and a hurried quest for a suitable location to film the tribute. The script is memorised en route to the Backs, a belt of manicured parkland behind a row of imposing colleges, and delivered in one take to a Sky TV crew.

Only on the walk back to the car does the Labour leader allow himself the faintest flicker of a wry smile at the sombre turn the day has taken. When we’d met at Liverpool Street Station first thing that morning, Miliband had been in a congenial mood, fresh from a family holiday in rural Devon. He had a campaign to kick off with a gleaming new policy – giving local authorities power to banish predatory payday lenders from the high street.

He was unfazed by a week in which his party had been bogged down in gruesome combat over its position on welfare. The debate had taken an ugly twist when George Osborne cited the case of Mick Philpott, a convicted child killer, as a case study in the failings of the benefits system. When senior Labour figures expressed outrage, they were accused of siding with waste and depravity over honest toil.

On the train to Ipswich I asked Miliband if he was concerned by the Chancellor’s supreme confidence that public opinion supports his harsh line on welfare; that Labour walks into his traps by defending a system many voters deem indefensible. “You have to do what you think is right. I don’t feel anxious about it because I’ve learned that the most powerful form of politics is sticking to what you believe in . . . The Tories will go looking for traps and tricks. They’ll engage in the most divisive, dirty kind of politics. We’ve got a bigger task than that.”

Behind the welfare attacks, Miliband sees the hand of Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s campaign chief, who has a reputation for brawling attack politics imported from his native Australia. “They are making a massive strategic error by going down the Crosby route,” Miliband says. “It’s a classic mistake of using devices that maybe look good for a day and then come apart.”

At times, his dismissal of the Tory leadership verges on contempt. “The biggest enemy is not enthusiasm for the Conservatives. You don’t meet people who say, ‘I think David Cameron is really brilliant.’ Not even in the Tory party. Tory MPs put their thumbs up to me when I do well at Prime Minister’s Questions.”

That doesn’t mean Labour can walk the next election. Miliband declares the Tories “eminently beatable” but on one condition: that his own party can overcome the corrosive feeling of despair that leads voters to think that politics itself is failing and that there is no alternative to the bleak Conservative offer of perpetual austerity. “The right wins when there is fatalism, when no one can see a way out of their problems. We win when we convince people that there is a way and that we can set Britain in the right direction.”

In the carriage with us is the man Miliband thinks might hold an antidote to such fatalism. Arnie Graf is the 69-year-old US veteran trainer of “community organisers”. If all goes according to plan, Graf’s system will transform the Labour Party from a centralised, rusty machine for mass leaflet delivery into a thriving ecosystem of grassroots campaigners. The key, Graf tells me, lies in giving ordinary members ownership of the policymaking process. Then they become not just cogs in a mechanism but evangelists for a cause. “If people feel their ideas are taken seriously, they’ll participate. But if you’re told what to do from London, if you’re told what to do from anywhere, after a while you either won’t do it or your lack of enthusiasm will become clear.” Miliband speaks with soft awe about the enthusiasm that Graf generates in rooms full of fresh recruits – “Arnie’s Disciples”, he calls them.

The feeling is mutual. Graf has been “organising” in communities for 50 years but steered clear of party politics in the US. Now he is on board with Project Miliband. “I’ve just never come across anyone I want to work for. Ed is the first.”

The Graf view of politics is partly what lies behind the new policy of giving councils power to thwart the legal loan sharks colonising Britain’s high streets. Westminster might not be much perturbed by payday lenders but the ease with which they prey on vulnerable people in less affluent quarters is a concern that has been passed up to the Labour leadership by anxious councillors across the country.

The idea wins a rousing cheer when presented to a packed hall in central Ipswich (although the crowd is generously seeded with local party members). Yet the promise to resuscitate ailing high streets also gets a warm reception from shoppers in the town centre when Miliband goes walkabout.

He plainly enjoys this side of the job, bouncing from one encounter to the next, shaking hands, wrapping arms around shoulders, nodding vigorously, laughing, amassing a trail of well-wishers and curious onlookers. Inviting journalists to witness this bonhomie – the rays of Miliband’s dawning celebrity – is no small part of the campaign. It is meant to dispel the notion that Miliband is wooden and lacking in charisma. The Labour leader’s boundless appetite to hear the concerns of voters is also supposed to form a contrast with his Tory counterpart, who is painted as aloof, arrogant, heeding only the demands of his own MPs and wealthy donors.

Extricating Miliband from his East Anglian public in time to catch the train to Cambridge proves to be a challenge for aides, who signal frantically at watches and then resort to tugging at his sleeve before steering him into a taxi like a kidnap victim. The train is caught with seconds to spare.

Two hours later, after the news: another journey, this time from Cambridge straight back to London. The whistle-stop tour of electoral target regions planned for the next few days is blown. Thatcher’s passing has suspended ordinary politics. The entourage sets up camp in a new carriage and haggles politely over sandwiches. It is a last chance to ask Miliband some questions. One topic is inescapable.

“There are lots of people in the Labour Party who deeply dislike what Mrs Thatcher did, who saw her as a very divisive figure,” he says. “I myself, at university and growing up, disagreed with so much of what she did but there are also a lot of people today who will be feeling very upset and will feel – rightly, I think – that there needs to be an acknowledgement of her achievements as a person. That’s what I’ve tried to reflect in what I’ve said.”

In the statement prepared on the train earlier, Miliband had made the point that all three main party leaders today were products in some way of the Thatcher era. It is, he notes, extraordinary to consider that her shadow is so long when she left Downing Street 23 years ago. Anyone younger than 30 now will barely remember her time in office, he muses. “But she has defined the trajectory of politics . . . It wasn’t just specific policies. She established an ethos, a way of thinking about things that was profoundly different from the 1970s.”

In the early days of Miliband’s leadership, some of his allies talked enthusiastically about lessons from Thatcher’s time in opposition. Cautious parallels were drawn – the unexpected leadership candidate, dismissed as lacking the gravitas to be prime minister, who harboured a discreetly radical ambition to change the orientation of British politics. It is clear that Miliband will not be drawn into any disquisition on the strategic relevance to his own ambitions of Thatcher’s revolution, and wisely so.

We talk more generally about the deep cycles of politics: the abandonment of trust in central state interventions, followed by unquestioning belief in market forces that has been undone by the financial crisis. People now feel powerless, says Miliband, exploited by vast commercial interests and betrayed by politicians. “That’s the challenge of the time,” he says. “People don’t have faith in market forces, absolutely not. And people are also worried about an unresponsive state. It’s cutting through those two things that’s important. That is where politics needs to be.”

This is a return to the earlier theme of our conversation – the idea that the discourse and habits of Westminster are losing relevance with alarming speed. The Tories, he says, have proved they are not equal to the scale of the task facing the country. Their way has already failed; Labour’s challenge is not to sit back and watch Cameron unravel but to set out the moral and ideological terms on which politics will be conducted after him. “We’re not in classic pendulum politics. You have to convince people that you can make a difference. You’ve got to push the pendulum.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue