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Ed Miliband: ‘I should have taken more chances’

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband talks of the influence of his father and how he would take more risks if he were to begin his career again.
Go Big: How to Fix Our World by Ed Miliband is out now (Vintage, £18.99) Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie Photo: Jenny Smith Photography

Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour party from 2010 to 2015 when he resigned as Labour lost the general election.

The son of Jewish refugees, Miliband’s father in particular left a strong impression on his life. Miliband has two boys with his wife Justine, with whom he has enjoyed spending extra time as the intensity of his political career has calmed down.

Here in his Letter to My Younger Self, he reflects on his family relationships and what he might have done differently were he to begin his career again.

I was really a nerdy kid, quite square. I was very into politics from a very young age, computers and politics. I was probably too serious. My father [lauded sociologist Ralph Miliband] was 46 when I was born. And he had a heart attack when I was three. There’s something about having older parents… Someone once said to me, when you have older parents you don’t feel rebellious, you feel sad. I did have a sense that my dad was older and vulnerable. My household was a great place to grow up in, but I think I probably had an excessive sense of responsibility at a young age. I don’t mean to sound pompous but it was instilled in us, our responsibility to make the world a better place. That’s really important, and that’s great in many ways but… I wasn’t very carefree as a child.

My parents were very serious about the cares of the world, but it’s not like they didn’t have a sense of humour, or weren’t very loving. My dad was always laughing. And he would make time for us as kids. It wasn’t like, Marx for breakfast. Maybe just for lunch. No, it wasn’t po-faced. But I was very aware that there were important struggles going on in the world. I met a famous South African activist called Ruth First, a student of my dad’s, in 1982, and a few months later she was blown up and killed by the South African secret police. When you have that experience as a child you do think, god, there are people engaged in life-or-death struggles right now.

National Socialists Conference.Professor Ralph Miliband in Sydney for the National Socialists conference.
1990 Ed’s father, acclaimed sociologist Ralph Miliband. Photo: Stuart Davidson/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

I was also aware that my parents were refugees. My dad came here at 16 [fleeing Nazi persecution of Jews in Belgium], my mum had been in hiding [protected by neighbours in Poland] and lost her father in the war. It was not talked about really. My dad talked about it a little bit, but it was too painful to talk about much. But I think the way it played out was, it gave them a sense of caring about other people. And feeling they were incredibly lucky to be alive. My childhood wasn’t all doom and gloom and nuclear war; they gave me a sense of excitement and positivity about the world, that I could make it a better place.

I’m quite an anxious person. Some of that might be genetic or upbringing, but if bad things happen at an early age, it inevitably has an effect on you. On one hand you think you’ve got to live your life to the full because you don’t know what’s around the corner. But that doesn’t stop you being anxious.

I gave it my best shot and I think the thing I’ve learned in life is, you can’t achieve perfection. You can only do your best

My dad was a sturdy man, a big figure in his field, you know… he was my dad. Then, when I was 21, he had a consultation and was told, you’re about to have another heart attack. So he had to have a heart bypass. He was in intensive care for weeks when I was at university. And it was incredibly frightening because I never thought I’d be in danger of losing a parent at such a young age. Three years later things suddenly started to go all wrong and he died. It was absolutely the worst thing that had ever happened in my life. There was still so much unsaid. It feels like such a long time ago but it still feels such a loss. There are things I think he’d be proud of me for, and I wish he could have met my kids and Justine. His death definitely left an imprint on my life. It made me so determined to be there for a long time for my kids. I think it is really hard. I think it’s just really, really… just really hard.

The Annual Labour Party Conference, Manchester, Britain - 25 Sep 2010
2010 At the Labour conference in Manchester after winning the leadership. Photo: Shutterstock

I think the younger me would be amazed that I became leader of the Labour Party [in 2010]. I remember meeting our local MP, Frank Dobson, when I was young, and that was a big deal. So even becoming an MP would be amazing to the younger me. I don’t think anything really prepares you to be leader of a political party. The scale of the media scrutiny. You go from saying lots of things that people don’t really pay much attention to, to having everything you do, everything you say, every sandwich you eat, scrutinised. Nothing prepares you for that level of intrusion and scrutiny. But at the same time, I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to do that job; the people I met, the chance to promote my ideas and influence political debate. There are definitely sacrifices, time lost with my children, feeling like you’re absent even when you’re present. But it is a unique opportunity.

The process of grieving – I think that’s the right way to put it – for losing the election [in 2015] was hard and long. I spent a lot of time being deeply regretful that I’d lost. But I’m not sure I spent time thinking it would have all been fine if I’d been PM. Though I don’t think it could have been worse and I think it would have been better. I think… I’m having trouble putting into words. It was personally quite devastating. But I always thought afterwards that I wanted to carry on in politics. You don’t need to be a political leader to have influence. All of the great changes that have happened in history – women’s rights, the NHS, trade union rights, all of those things – they didn’t just happen because of politicians; movements of people made them happen. And you can still be part of a movement of people as an MP. So I carried on because I felt I could still make a contribution. I gave it my best shot and I think the thing I’ve learned in life, maybe one of the things I’d say to my 16-year-old self is, you can’t achieve perfection. You can only do your best.

The peak of my career has gone. I was the leader of the Labour Party and I’ll never have that job again. But… I was on the street a few months ago with my younger son, who is 10, and this woman said to me, mate, I really wish you were the Prime Minister. And I had a conversation with my son and we concluded, from his point of view, that it was better that I wasn’t. I’m not just saying, let’s look on the bright side, but I suppose I’m thinking, would I have been as good a dad if I’d been Prime Minister? Definitely not. What kind of life would my kids have had in the public eye? There would have been an upside but there would have been a lot of downsides. That’s what I try and hang on to.

'Polar Adventure Launch', Sea Life aquarium, London, UK - 07 Apr 2019
2019 Not PM but a really good dad – with his sons Daniel and Samuel. Photo: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock

If I could go back in time I’d be more bold. I should have taken more chances. There were lots of great things in our manifesto, I didn’t paint it in primary colours enough. Labour was coming out of government. I was moving on from New Labour. I think I would have been better off being bolder and following my instincts. I listened to too much advice, which you tend to do. And then you take off the sharp edges. It’s harder for your personality to come out because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. I definitely made it worse on myself though, I was too risk-averse. But that’s the lesson I learned, just to be myself.

I’m definitely a more lighthearted person now. I’m still the same person but I have a sense of fun, I like to have a laugh.  I spend time doing other things. Justine and I have gone through a lot of Parks and Recreation. And This is Us, Line of Duty. I love watching baseball with my kids. Three years ago I took them to Fenway Park in Boston, which is where the Red Sox play. When I was their age my dad used to make up stories for me about two sheep living in the middle of the Yorkshire moors. Boo-boo and Hee-hee. The adventures they had. So now I tell those stories, and create this fantasy world, for my sons.

If I could re-live any moment, well, it would be two. The birth of my kids. I remember when Daniel was born. He was in an incubator just after he was born, and I remember just looking and looking at him. The feeling of elation. It was a magical moment. My sons are the best things I’ve done in my life.

Go Big: How to Fix Our World by Ed Miliband is out now (Vintage, £18.99)