Now that Ed Miliband has disappeared from front line politics, almost certainly for good (unless the Labour Party has really lost its mind), I thought I’d divulge the few times I ever met the man face to face. The first thing to say as a preface is that he is kind of weird. I know to the vast majority of you reading this, that statement will come across as massively redundant, a case of stating the bleeding obvious if ever there was one. Somewhat like asserting that Tokyo is quite a large town or that John Barrowman kind of lacks gravitas.
The first time I met Ed was at the press conference that never was but went ahead anyway, what was to be the Clegg-Miliband jubilee during the AV campaign. Nick’s appearance was kyboshed by Miliband’s people and so the whole thing trudged ahead with Charles Kennedy instead of Clegg. For the record, I think this was what definitively turned the tide away from the Yes to AV camp; what made the distant possibility of victory for electoral reform become a drubbing in wait. Had Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg shared a stage together and said there that despite having thrown stones at one another for the past six months, each from opposite sides of the Commons, a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the voting system was too important to let temporary coalitions or loyalties get between parties who agreed on this particular subject, it would have sent a powerful message and might have given the whole thing a chance. One need only look at how decisive the David Cameron/John Reid joint press conference on behalf of the No campaign turned out to be. Miliband/Clegg would have been that times three in terms of the waves it would have sent through the political media. However, I do understand why Ed said no. Clegg had already become entrenched as Labour’s Goldstein figure by that stage so it would have been risky for such a nascent leader to have been seen in such a prominent way with the Lib Dem leader.
Anyhow, back to the Miliband/Kennedy press conference: once everyone was mercifully through half-heartedly endorsing the Alternative Vote to a pack of half-awake hacks, I stood in the backstage area where everyone had gathered for tea and networking opportunities (networking opportunities being the only reason many of the people who worked on the Yes campaign did so). I walked up to Charles and said hello. The Right Honourable Mr Kennedy didn’t really know me but one of my best friends, Olly, used to work for him and so that was my entry point. Charles and I were having a warm old chat about our mutual acquaintance when Ed hovered into view, close enough to Charles to indicate that he wanted to talk to the man without ever getting quite close enough to assert himself into the conversation. Sort of like the manoeuvre an awkward adolescent boy makes when he wants to get within touching distance of a girl he fancies without putting himself in a position to be rejected. I imagined that someone in his office had said “Ed, your one job for today is to talk to Charles Kennedy. Do not disappoint me”. This state of affairs went on for several minutes, Ed squatting nearby with those lost lamb eyes of his. Eventually I felt so uncomfortable with the lingering Miliband (and hey, as those aforementioned networking opportunities on the Yes campaign went, getting to meet the leader of the opposition is not too bad at all), I tried to bring him into the conversation myself.
“Hi Ed – Charles, do you know Ed Miliband?” I said, feeling like a real mover and shaker all of a sudden. Future Lib-Lab coalition folks, I was self-importantly thinking: it all began here with moi. Charles was warm in greeting Ed, giving him the old Eton handshake. Ed still couldn’t defrost.
“Yes, great to meet you, see you, I mean, you know,” the Labour leader said like a child with a Ritalin problem. Charles stepped into the breach and gave a little speech about how it was great that in a period in which Labour and the Lib Dems were at an all-time low in terms of relations as a result of the Coalition, it was great that the referendum gave us all a chance to gang up on the Tories together. Ed then very awkwardly shuffled to his right, away from Charles Kennedy, and then once at a reasonable remove from the former Lib Dem leader gave him a very cheesy, very forced thumbs up and a smile that would have shamed Gordon Brown for its falseness. Then he simply turned around and walked away without another word.
The second time we met, he had no memory of who I was (fair enough: he’s got better things to recall than the names of Yes to AV campaigners). It was backstage at one of the innumerable and interminable Yes events, the likes of which we seemed to stage a couple of every week by that stage. Seeing him that time round with his staff and the Labour MPs he’d known for years in attendance, I saw a different side of him. He seemed relaxed – funny even, cracking a few good one-liners spontaneously. I could see then how he’d risen through the ranks to become the leader of the Labour Party by watching him in this setting. On his home ground, he was obviously a formidable bloke. It’s just when the away games came up that things got hairy for him. And unfortunately when you’re the leader of the opposition, there is a lot of unfamiliar terrain to tackle.
Between these two meetings, I had the chance to observe him at one of the Labour Yes to AV rallies. This one was the big enchilada as far as Labour pushing for a Yes vote went. The panel had Ken Livingstone, Neil Kinnock, Alan Johnson, Oona King and of course, Ed. It was really an odd vibe when Ed got up to speak: the other panellists, Labour legends most of them, clapped during the breaks in the way a parent does when their toddler child is up on stage trying to get through “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”. It was like they kept expecting him to botch it and so when he managed to get through another line unscathed they were chuffed to bits. The saddest part of it all, however, was what happened immediately after the event. Livingstone and Kinnock were like rock stars amongst the Labour activist crowd; they were asked in reverent tones to pose for iPhone pictures, sign copies of books they had written, old leaflets, campaign posters. Meanwhile, Ed wandered around for a bit like Johnny No-Mates until finally sloughing off.
The last time I met Ed Miliband was at a party hosted by a journalist, occurring during the summer of 2011, the one following Yes to AV’s thumping defeat. I was speaking to a journalist who was not the host late in the evening, both of us slightly drunk on champagne by that point, when Ed dashed up in a total panic to speak to the journo I was sat with.
“We must speak about Gordon!” he shrieked like a twelve-year-old girl who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. This was the week the ex-prime minister had given a long, laborious speech in the House of Commons about how Fleet Street had been the bane of his existence and had apparently stalked him mercilessly while he was chancellor and then PM. The journalist and I were sitting close together on a sofa. Strangely, Ed decided to jump in between the two of us, making it a very cosy threesome suddenly. I was face to face with Ed Miliband again, this time close enough to snog him. It was clear he still didn’t know who the hell I was (again, fair enough) so I introduced myself as magnanimously as possible.
“Hi Ed, Nick Tyrone. I worked on the Yes campaign; we met a couple of times during that period.”
I had laid it on a plate for him. All he had to say was what any other politician would have said in the same circumstance.
“Oh yes, Nick, of course I remember. Good to see you again.”
Having said this, he should have turned to the journalist and ignored me completely from there on. He didn’t do any of this. Instead, he flashed me a big smile, the fake one he keeps in reserve for just such trips out of his comfort zone, and said “Good for you!” in a way that could either have been intentionally condescending or a very, very bad attempt at warmth. It was hard to tell. He then launched into this moan at the journalist and me about how he felt so let down by Gordon for his speech but he couldn’t very well tell Gordon about this because well, Gordon is Gordon after all. Part of me wanted to grab him by the lapels and scream in his face.
“For fuck’s sakes, Ed, you’re the goddamn leader now. Just go and tell Gordon Brown to shut his fat gob.”
It goes without saying that this is not what I did. But part of me also felt sorry for Ed; his hurt over Brown’s grandstanding did feel genuine and you could see the human side to him in that conflict with his ex-boss.
Anyhow, the Ed Miliband era is over. On reflection, it is strange that anyone so, well, strange was ever the leader of the second most successful British party of the last century. Best of luck to him, in whatever he goes on to do. He wasn’t a bad bloke, as far as I could see – just not cut out for front line politics in the end.