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10 May 2018updated 01 Aug 2021 12:20pm

Why I hate the Ed Miliband renaissance

The afterlife of senior politicians is undignified at the best of times.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Ed Miliband is officially back. Following his weirdly physical tirade about Leveson 2 in the House of Commons yesterday, it’s the second coming sketchwriters and gif makers have been waiting for.

All hail the Messiah of Memes.

Clips of him waving his arms and wagging his finger have been flying around social media. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon welcomed his “spectacular return”, describing fellow journalists as glowing “with excited nostalgia”.

In fact, Miliband’s resurrection has been on the cards for a while now. It started with his newly sassy Twitter presence. “Introducing Ed Miliband 2.0, king of the Twitter burn,” was how the Telegraph described him in a headline last year.

Gone, apparently, was the earnest man who said he felt “respect” when he sees a white van. Here was a quick-fire wit mocking the Tories for nicking his policies (“Marxist, anti-business interventionism imho”, he tweeted about Theresa May’s energy bill policy in 2016), getting stuck in to the media fray (“Breaking: I will shortly be announced as editor of Heat magazine…” he quipped at George Osborne’s Evening Standard editorship), and generally being snarky, self-deprecating and scathing in equal measure.

Then came his BBC Radio 2 slot last summer filling in for presenter Jeremy Vine. “Ed Miliband has been channeling Alan Partridge on Radio 2 and even Tories are starting to like him,” applauded the Independent, following Miliband’s masterful handling of bizarre subjects from toilet flushing to trying out dog grooming to learning how to do an extreme metal roar. 

He was so good on the radio that he now has his own podcast called Reasons to be Cheerful, which has been popular among listeners and critics alike, hitting number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted and receiving a nomination for the 2018 British Podcast Award. He’s jovial, engaging and a delight to listen to – the man clearly has bags of personality that didn’t quite come through when he was Labour leader.

But much as I’m happy for the new fun Ed, I am struggling with this renaissance. I’ve always found this very British trend of fetishising politicians when they move on from power a bit sad and creepily deferential.

The afterlife of senior politicians – even the successful ones – is undignified at the best of times. George Osborne’s thousands of jobs paying thousands more pounds – including editing a paper with scarce journalism experience. Tony Blair’s private business empire and very public political interventions. Ed Balls dancing in spangly leggings on live TV. David Cameron hiding in a posh shed.

Miliband’s not doing anything quite so degrading, but I still don’t like our kneejerk celebration of his return when all he’s doing is just… discussing political ideas in an engaging way (like on his podcast), landing blows against the opposition (like in his tweets) or making striking and passionate speeches in the Commons (like yesterday). Standard skills you’d expect from, say, a party leader. Yet he didn’t display them enough not to electorally hobble the Labour party over five years.

If you think about it, his regeneration into a popular figure is deeply frustrating wherever you stand on the left.

For Blairites, he was the guy who trashed their record and paved the way for Jeremy Corbyn with no electoral pay-off. For Corbynites, they would’ve had quite a bit of last year’s manifesto delivered three years ago if Miliband had led Labour to No 10.

For some voters, his silence on Labour’s anti-Semitism problem and internal divisions seems strange when he could speak from recent experience. And for everyone despairing at nearly a decade of Tory austerity, it would’ve been helpful to have a Labour government by now.

Maybe he can return to the frontbench and help out, and of course he should carry on throwing policy ideas around – all of that’s positive. I just can’t avoid seeing Miliband memes as a symbol of sadness, rather than a reason to be cheerful.