Ed Miliband appeared on Desert Island Discs on Sunday 24 November, immediately after the omnibus edition of The Archers. The programme was repeated on Friday the 29th. No one really knows if these casual, more intimate media moments do politicians any good. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher appearing on the Jimmy Young Show became more human, with lives and feelings and characters just like ours. Did it help them politically? Probably. That is the received view – that personalising political leaders and gaining media exposure outside formal politics is a good thing; and besides, in the current climate, it is inevitable. As Miliband said himself to Kirsty Young ‘In modern politics, who you are, who your family is, is always going to be relevant and important to people’. So better to do it and do it right.
But this development brings with it a series of difficult challenges, particularly for Ed Miliband. Kirsty Young’s remark that the programme allowed them to speak ‘less about policy and more about you’ masks a complexity bedevilling contemporary politics, for policy/you is not a dichotomy but a duality: the ‘self’ and perceived ‘character’ of the leader have become integral to politics and intertwine with policy and the political party’s narrative all the time. Ed insisted the songs were his own personal choices, not those scrutinised by Team Miliband for maximum effect, so what did the music chosen tell us about him?
The choices revealed a character essentially made up of two parts: the moral-political on the one hand, and the unpretentious and emotional on the other. The ANC national anthem, ‘Joe Hill’ (sung by Robeson), and ‘Jerusalem’ gave us the first; Neil Diamond, A-ha, and Robbie Williams the second. Technically ‘Angels’ had been sung at Live 8 when he was with his future wife; and Jerusalem reminded him of walks in England’s pleasant land, again with Justine, so the two parts of his ‘character’ cross over with the songs. Hence the man: inspired by the good, indulgent with the trivial, and prey to the whole gamut of emotions whether in memory of Ruth First, anti-apartheid activist and family friend murdered by the South African regime, or a helpless ingénue love for Justine (he even admitted his minimal experience of the fair sex until after university). And to the standard statement ‘if you could only choose one’, he reinforced love over politics by choosing the appallingly awful Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’. Beats the ANC national anthem any day.
But this excursion into character raises a series of extremely difficult problems for Miliband, and questions related to our understanding of the nature of personalisation in contemporary UK politics; these questions all relate to family. This latter has become an essential element of the display of self and character in the political realm, but for a range of reasons family is an area where the Miliband narrative is anything but straightforward.
Part of it is a good political resource – his parents refugees from the horror of Nazism, other family members its victims, Britain as a land of refuge, the young Ed a morally-inspired comprehensive school-educated boy, up to Oxford and Harvard, and so on. But Kirsty Young took the discussion close to the style of ‘Hard Talk’. Ed’s own references to his brother, David, would have been minimal. Kirsty often seemed to talk of little else, suggesting a fratricidal resentment of his older sibling. She pointed out that Ed went up to Oxford to do the same degree as his older brother at the same college, where David got a first, but Ed didn’t. The idea of the mark of Cain entered what was a discussion of your favourite tunes.
Equally, Young’s questions probed the effect of Ed’s taking the leadership of the party in 2010, as if from the rightful heir, his older brother. Ed’s repeated ‘It’s been hard’, ‘It’s been tough’, ‘It’s healing’, and the pauses and ‘errs’ suggested a half-hidden story of familial strife well beyond the public depiction. This may not be the reality, but the listener glimpsed a family – and one we seem familiar with – shaken to its core by the events. Tellingly, Ed’s focus upon the richness of his family with his wife and children rang like an attempt to escape the legacy of the original family.
So what of the significance of his last song, Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, a favourite of both of his parents? From the political point of view, such – no regrets – is a prerequisite to leadership. Onward and Upward. When applied to the more profound questions of the psychic motivations and their effects evoked in Desert Island Discs, no regrets is perhaps not the best song to choose. The contemporary emphasis upon ‘character’ in politics is driving us towards a more Gestalt approach to the projection of leadership persona. Politically, Je ne regrette rien is good. Emotionally, for Ed Miliband’s public persona, no regrets perhaps needs revisiting.
This post was originally published at The Huffington Post.