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“I’m ripping up the rule book”: Mehdi Hasan interviews Ed Miliband

The Labour leader on the August riots, News International and the economy.

I am greeted by a smiling Ed Miliband at the doorway of his Westminster office on a sunny, September morning. It is the first time I have met the Labour leader since James Macintyre's and my biography of him was published in June. I can't contain my curiosity. What did he make of it? "I'm really embarrassed to say I haven't read it," he says, with a laugh. "I'm sorry. It's nothing personal. I just think, whether it's good or bad stuff, you're better off not reading it. It's your job to keep your eye on the prize."

Despite having had to interrupt his holiday in Devon to return to London and react to the August riots, Miliband, in a crisp, white shirt and dark purple tie, looks fresh and relaxed after his break. Sitting on the edge of a green couch in the corner of his office, the Labour leader says he has had his "ups and downs" over the past 12 months.

“What I've learned is that I'm a far more level-headed person than much of the Westminster village." Miliband believes that the weekly joust that is Prime Minister's Questions, in particular, is over-rated. "I always say after PMQs, whether it goes well or badly, that the gap between triumph and disaster is incredibly narrow. Me saying Cameron chucked bread rolls was a great triumph and yet, the week before, [my performance] was supposed to be a great disaster. Who remembers it now?" Does he have any regrets? He laughs. "Clearly, I shouldn't have used the phrase 'blank page'." His biggest frustration, though, is "not having more time with my kids".

What about his relations with his brother, David, whom he narrowly defeated in the contest for the Labour leadership? The former foreign secretary has announced that he will not attend this year's party conference in Liverpool. His younger brother tells me that he made the "right decision": "We talked about it. David was worried about people following him around. He didn't want to attract attention or be part of a soap opera."

For the Labour leader, it is the "big picture" that matters. He believes that: "You only win an election as leader of the opposition if you have a clear sense of what's wrong with the country and what needs to change. I don't think David Cameron had that, before the election."

In recent months, the coalition's approval ratings have been falling but Miliband isn't complacent. "I don't believe that governments lose elections and oppositions don't win them. That sounds too much like a consolation to people who lose elections."

Looking back over the past year, he describes the phone-hacking affair as a "particular moment". Why? "Because people had a sense that we were reflecting the mood of the country. And that's what you want to try to do as leader of the opposition. It was a terrible set of things that had happened, but I hope some good will come out of it."

Miliband takes credit for the bold decision to break with the Murdochs, beginning with his call for Rebekah Brooks, then chief executive of News International, to resign. "It was my personal decision. I knew it would never be the same again. We were ripping up the rule book. The rule book said you didn't take on News International, you didn't take on vested interests, because, as with the 'too-big-to-fail' banks, they were 'too big to be challenged'."

There were reports at the time that a News International insider had warned Miliband's aides that its newspapers would "turn on" their man. "They were very clear with us," he says, "that Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch would be the two people standing at News International when everyone else was gone."

Was he worried? He grins. "They weren't threatening to shoot me in an alleyway." For Miliband, it was "very instructive, because it was a set of people whose power had never been challenged and who thought they were untouchable . . . That's why you've got to rip up the rule book. That's got to change."

Miliband's disparagers have argued that he waited far too long to challenge Murdoch; they point to his attendance at the News International summer party in June, just three weeks before the start of "Hackgate".

“I said at the time that I should have said more earlier," he says quietly. "You can't judge people by which parties they go to; you judge people by whether they are willing to speak out without fear or favour."

He says the "big theme" of this year's party conference, for him and for Labour, is the necessity to take on "a political consensus that needs to be challenged and changed". Miliband makes repeated references to "ripping up the rule book" - a line that I suspect may find its way into his conference speech. "I use the phrase 'ripping up the rule book', because what I am going to be arguing is that the set of things I've talked about - the squeezed middle, what's happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom - they're not coincidences or accidents; they're part of an economic and political settlement of some decades and that settlement's got to change."

He continues: "It's about everything from inequality to the vested interests who think they're immune from democracy, to employers who don't exercise responsibility, to the triumph of finance over industry . . . It's about an ethic of take-what-you-can, something-for-nothing, the short term, the fast buck."

He becomes animated. "The potential of this country is being held back. And it's not just being held back by a Tory government . . ." He stops himself. "It is being held back by a Tory government but it's not just that. It's also about an economic settlement that, to a large extent, we accepted when we were in government. All that has got to change . . . [It's about] a very clear and different direction of travel."

Among the most provocative set of ideas to emerge from his first year as Labour leader has been "Blue Labour", with its emphasis on community and tradition. Does Blue Labour still have a role to play? "This is what Blue Labour means to me," he says. "It's about this idea of responsibility and solidarity. We rebuilt the fabric of the country but we didn't change the ethic of the economy. That is my critique of the last Labour government. That's why I think Blue Labour is important."

Miliband is at pains to point out, however, that he "totally disagreed" with Maurice Glasman's call to ban all immigration to the UK and to engage with supporters of the English Defence League (EDL). "Maurice doesn't clear his interviews with me."

Is Glasman his "guru"?

“No," he says.

Miliband thinks that it is "important in a party in which people felt debate had been shut down for 16 years to feel that a space had opened up". Having enthusiastically embraced the "insurgent" label during last year's leadership campaign, he is keen to signal that his radicalism and his ambition are undimmed. Caution is not an option. "This is not a time or a place for low-risk [leadership] or going back to 'You're all doing rather well, please re-elect us' or 'These guys are crap, just elect us'." For Miliband, the party conference is an opportunity to restate his call for a fundamental change in political and economic direction.

“What the conference has to do is to understand the moment we're in," he contends. "We're not just in a moment of knee-jerk crises such as with the eurozone; we're in a moment when we need to take a step back and think: hang on, where is our society going? Where is our economy going?

What needs to change?"

“And this coalition" - he corrects himself - "this Conservative-led government is never going to solve the problems of a squeeze on living standards. The Tories' answer to the failures of free-market fundamentalism is more free-market fundamentalism."

Miliband is eager to discuss the virtues of his Refounding Labour project. He says that he wants to "turn the Labour Party into a movement". He praises trade-union levy-payers: "Three million people, the most underused resource of our party." These levy-payers played a decisive role in his victory in the leadership contest last September.

A year on, though, trade unionists are falling out of love with him. In his address to the Trades Union Congress on 13 September, Miliband was heckled when he repeated his opposition to the one-day strike that took place on 30 June over pay and pensions, by teachers and civil servants.

He doesn't have any regrets. "On 30 June, the reason I didn't back the strike was because negotiations were still going on," he says, before adding, "affiliated unions to the Labour Party didn't go on strike, because they didn't think it was the right time to strike either."

Will he then support the co-ordinated strike by Labour-affiliated unions such as Unite and Unison, planned for 30 November? "I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about strikes that may or may not happen. What I'm going to do is say: government has a responsibility to properly negotiate and they're not doing it and they've got to do it." What if they don't? Should the unions do nothing? "I think that unions should demand a proper engagement from the government and we will support them." But what if, as is likely to be the case, negotiations between the two sides break down? Miliband won't budge. "Look, the unions have to make their own judgement about what they do. I've got to make a judgement about whether industrial action is justified or whether it's unjustified." Is it justified to take action on 30 November? "We're not at 30 November," he says, exasperated. "I'll make a judgement about that if we get to that."

So, just to clarify, he won't back the strike? "I'm not going to get into hypotheticals," he replies. "Let's see where we are at the end of November. What I'm going to say to the government is: you've got to get round the table, it's your responsibility to stop this industrial action from happening. You've got to negotiate in good faith and that's the position I'm going to take." Is there a scenario in which he would back a strike? Again the answer comes back: "I'm not going to get into hypotheticals."

Despite anaemic growth and rising unemployment, the Tories retain a double-digit opinion-poll lead on the economy. Can he explain why? "The rhetoric of 'there is no alternative' is . . . powerful," he suggests.

However, he believes that Labour has a credible and coherent alternative. "We have a very clear plan: cut VAT to get the economy moving, use the bankers' bonus tax to get young people back to work and build new homes, and have proper, international, co-ordinated action. At the moment, you've got collective austerity. This is the first government in history with an export-led growth strategy that is demanding that other countries practise austerity. It is completely illogical and wrong-headed and won't work."

At PMQs on 14 September, Miliband claimed that the Chancellor, George Osborne, had "lashed himself to the mast" of austerity. Hasn't he lashed himself to the Darling plan and its rather arbitrary target to halve the deficit over four years? "If growth had carried on, it would have been easier to halve the deficit over four years," he says. Growth is close to non-existent - isn't it time for a rethink? I reel off a list of economists - including Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, the Financial Times's Martin Wolf and the New Statesman's David Blanchflower - who have urged the government to abandon its austerity agenda and go for a new round of short-term stimulus spending.

Why, then, is Labour so timid on this issue? "We're saying we are going to cut VAT to get the economy going . . ." I interrupt. Will that be enough to prevent another Great Depression? "It's one thing to get the economy moving," Miliband replies. So, no new stimulus? “A VAT cut would get the economy moving," is all he will say, reminding me that the deficit "has got to be brought down".

Last month, the German and French governments signalled their support for a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions - a proposal promptly rejected by Osborne. Miliband, on the other hand, is a supporter. "We're for an international transaction tax," he tells me. He says he is considering a proposal by Robert Skidelsky, cross-bench peer and biographer of John Maynard Keynes, to scale up the government's new Green Investment Bank to become a National Investment Bank, with the power to borrow, and a specific mandate to invest in transport infrastructure, social housing and environmental projects. "It's something we're looking at," he says. "It's an interesting idea. It's something Ed [Balls] and I have talked about. It's definitely an idea worth exploring."

Curiously, for a new leader who promised a break with Blairism, Miliband has a distinctly Blair-like speaking style: his answers are peppered with "ers" and "y'knows"; he makes repeated references to "doing the right thing". Blair, however, was a master communicator in public. Miliband's speeches have been criticised as dry and lacklustre and his nasal voice is much mocked. According to a new report commissioned by the Fabian Society, based on polling and focus group discussions, he remains largely unknown to the majority of voters; the report says he has to "define himself as a leader and fast".

What does he say to those who don't think he has what it takes to make it to No 10? "They're wrong," he says flatly. What about the recent Populus poll showing 49 per cent of Labour voters could not see him as prime minister? "Honestly, I notice these things but I don't take much notice of them," he replies, with a shrug of his shoulders.

Isn't there a danger that he is in denial? Miliband says he knows absolutely "what we need to do as a party and what I need to do as a person. What we need to do is set out a very clear sense of how we thinks Britain needs to change and how we're going to change it. I've got to show what makes me tick."

So can he sum up in a sentence what makes him tick? He pauses. "The idea that there is huge potential in this country and it is being held back and that this is an unfair, unequal and unjust country for too many people and it has got to change."

Perhaps, I suggest, he just doesn't feel comfortable discussing his image. "I don't mind talking about it," he says, defiantly. Nor, he argues, is he in denial: "Of course, you have to worry about your image. It would be crackers to say you don't care."

I'm told by senior Labour sources that their party leader has been receiving media - and, specifically, television - training, but Miliband denies this. All he will say is: "Of course you want to project as well as you can and that's very important." Does he accept that he still has a great deal of work to do on his voice and his communication skills? "I'm not getting into that. Everybody can do better."

If, as the Labour leader suggests, the time has come to rip up the political and economic rule book, to take on Britain's vested interests and to offer a credible alternative to the coalition's programme of cuts, he will have to start performing at his very best - in Liverpool and beyond.

“Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader" by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre is published by Biteback (£16.99)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter