Ed Miliband: ‘My wife’s career has taken off since mine went down the Swanee’

Ed Miliband is in a playful mood. “Shall I rip my shirt off?” he asks the photographer, who is not sure how to reply. “How about I put this feather in my hair?” We are in the garden of Miliband’s North London house. The sun is out, his sons’ bikes are propped against the wall and Miliband seems relaxed — far more at ease than when he was Labour leader, from 2010 until 2015. He describes his role now as “a nerd trying to offer solutions to some of the enormous problems the world faces”, through his job as shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy and MP for Doncaster North, his podcast Reasons to be Cheerful and now his book, Go Big, How to Fix our World.

Miliband, 51, is the first to admit that he did not “go big” enough when he was leading the Labour party and is self-deprecating, saying “it would have been chaos under me”, to paraphrase what his former rival David Cameron said about him. But there is a flicker of pride on his face when he talks about how he stuck at it. “I lost the election in 2015 and when I look around [my contemporaries], Cameron, Clegg, Osborne have all left politics. I am not criticising them because I totally get why people say ‘I have had it with politics’ but pretty much from the get go I wanted to stay. There are things to fight for.”

He has a competitive streak, which is currently finding an outlet in cold water swimming; in a peak North London move, he is comparing his stats with Alastair Campbell. “Maybe it is a mid-life thing but I am a complete convert,” he says. It’s working — he looks trim, saying he has been on a health kick, and wears a Garmin “which encourages me to keep fit”. Cycling is another new hobby. He only learned to ride a bike in 2015 and is still wary of cycling on roads. There is a chapter in the book about phasing out cars and getting people on their bikes (he is still getting the hang of it and accidentally took his wife Justine Thornton the long way back from a 10th wedding anniversary dinner at Moro, referring to his mistake as “an Ed experience”.

The green revolution is part of a wider shift explored in the book. Miliband becomes animated talking about the people he met who are transforming communities, like those working on flexible working in Finland and council leader Matthew Brown who is pioneering community wealth building in Preston: “It sounds like the dullest subject in history but there is lots to be inspired by.”

Cameron, Clegg, Osborne have all left politics. From the get go I wanted to stay. There are things to fight for

While the book is definitively not Labour’s new manifesto, there is a quote from Keir Starmer on the cover. The Labour leader, who lives just up the road from Miliband, says it is “important reading… we must create a bold new settlement”. Miliband is a Starmer supporter and encouraged him to stand as an MP in 2015. He thinks Starmer appearing on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, which aired last night, is “a good thing to do”.

“Keir is somebody of great decency and integrity and the more the public can see of that the more they will recognise it.” Would Miliband have let Morgan grill him when he was leader, pressing him on whether he had taken drugs? “Desert Island Discs is the closest I’ve come. Look, I felt I was too careful, too constrained as leader. In 2015 it was like, ‘where was this personality? I don’t know if I’ve got a personality’,” he laughs. “When you are leader of the opposition the Government always dominates the agenda; your opportunities to be who you are can be limited. It’s good to take advantage of the chances you get.”

He continues: “Nothing prepares you for that level of scrutiny. Keir is a pretty resilient person. He knew that it would be a hard slog when he went into it. But you can’t put it all on the leader. There is a lot of collective determination.

“We are moving on from [the Corbyn era], thinking about building a better future.” Surely it is a bit annoying that the Tories are now getting credit for policies Miliband advocated, such as more active state intervention and higher public spending? “I would say it is not the real thing,” says Miliband. “Rishi Sunak has pencilled in cuts in the future, in the council budget and more on the way. One thing that is interesting is the shift in political debate. When I proposed the energy price freeze it was seen as, how did David Cameron put it? ‘Living in a Marxist universe’. Now everyone is in favour of that. The Tories are saying we can achieve things the Left believed in. I think let’s see.”

Labour’s poor performance in the polls is something Miliband takes “with a pinch of salt”. Some of his fellow MPs haven’t read Tony Blair’s critique of the party, preferring to focus on policies rather than internal struggles. He diffuses my question about what the point of Labour is by putting it in context. “After Labour lost in 1992 there was an absolute industry of asking whether we could win again. It is too early to tell how Labour will do in the next election. Six months ago people were down on Boris and now they say he is Teflon. You never know where it is going to go. I thought the Cummings testimony was devastating but we will see what the inquiry says.” The Tory tactic of using patriotism to appeal to Red Wall voters, creating a divide between there and London is “not the right way of thinking”.

“This can miss out the fact that London has huge levels of poverty and inequality too. The argument is not London versus the rest, it is about inequalities between areas.” One solution in Go Big is more devolution. “We are still far too centralised as a country. Too much power resides at Westminster. Unless you give power and resources to people in their areas you will have inequalities. And I don’t think you can level up with continued austerity. What is going to happen on 21 June? If social distancing remains there needs to be economic support. Unemployment figures are encouraging but there are still 4.8 million people on furlough. We are still in a rescue period.”

It begins to rain and we take shelter in the conservatory extension to Miliband’s kitchen (he has just the one now, after a story in 2015 mocked him for having two), followed by a cat called Tiger who Miliband says he was once told off for feeding (“he looked depressed so I gave him tuna but his owner was worried he’d become Ten dinners Tiger”). There’s an Aga and a shelf overflowing with cookbooks, including Fuschia Dunlop’s, which Justine bought him for his birthday. “Justine would describe my cooking as surprisingly okay. I can make pancakes for my kids but I’m not in the Ed Balls league. I am not going on any celebrity chef thing.”

This would disappoint a cabal of loyal supporters who thought that Miliband had plenty of personality — the Milifans. What has happened to them? “Maybe they’ve grown up and thought better of it? They were nice to me.” At this point his assistant has a confession. “I was a Milifan,” she says. “I had a poster of you on my wall and a mug with your face on.” “Best you keep that under your hat,” says Miliband. She is saved by a loud insect buzzing around our heads. “Shall I kill the hornet with my bare hands like Obama would?” asks Miliband. He has met Obama, “at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit” and is excited by Joe Biden. He quotes the US President saying “when people talk about climate change I talk about jobs” adding “there is real opportunity in the green economy but it requires investment at scale”. The Milibands are trying out an electric Renault Zoe at the moment and “our family has spent a lot of time at Loughborough McDonald’s charging it on the way to my in-laws in Nottingham”. “There is so much to be done with the green economy, we need more charging points, retrofitting homes, tree planting. At the moment you are penalised for putting up solar panels because it counts as improving your building.”

He also admires Biden’s plan to halve child poverty. Social care is a strong theme in Go Big. Miliband argues that we “don’t value care enough in this country — social care or childcare, and giving people a chance for work not to dominate their lives. We do not have a childcare system or a social care system that is fit for purpose.” There is a tentative hope that some of the flexible working and childcare sharing during the pandemic will remain.

“Justine’s career has taken off since mine went down the Swanee,” he says. “I stopped being leader and she became a high court judge which rather suggests I was holding her back. In my book I talk about the use it or lose it policy for parental leave. If you just have shared parental leave fathers won’t take it.” We need a cultural shift. “Investing in conventional infrastructure is seen as an investment, investing in care is seen as a burden but the return on investing in care is potentially greater.” Politics is particularly bad at flexible working. “There are still not family friendly hours in Westminster, but it needs to change. At the moment planet politics still looks off-putting for a lot of people.” He agrees that the pandemic showed the danger of not having enough women making decisions.

He says that 80 per cent of people want to continue working flexibly after the pandemic.  But he does not think the office is going to become extinct. “We were in the office this week and it was joyous, at least it was for me. Justine has been saying throughout the pandemic that she thinks I am a people person. In the office I think I was. We want to combine the lessons we have learned about working flexibly but I don’t think the office is going to disappear.”

His own mother lives nearby and he speaks regularly to his older brother David, who is based in New York where he works as president of the International Rescue Committee. David is mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements and Miliband has said that you can’t change what happened when they went against each other in the leadership race “but we love each other. That’s what matters”. Is he glad he was once leader? “Yes,” he says, somewhat hesitantly. “It’s a unique and amazing experience and a chance to present a vision for the country, even though the country rejected it.”

Usually when you ask politicians if they have their sights on the top job they squirm but Miliband seems genuine when he says “not if I want to make it to my next wedding anniversary”. He’s pretty busy anyway, spreading his message that, as he puts it “there are a lot of reasons for hope”.

Go Big is out June 3, £18.99, Bodley Head/ Vintage