03 February 2006
Local government minister and political wunderkind David Miliband has been tipped as a potential Labour prime minister. Vivienne Russell meets a minister who is very much on the move
David Miliband is going places and you sense he knows it. The minister for communities and local government strides the parliamentary corridors with the insouciance of a man comfortable with power. His red ministerial folder is dumped unceremoniously beside him in the Commons tearoom where we talk.
Given his reputation as one of the biggest brains in government, it's surprising when he inquires: 'You're not going to ask me about finance, are you?' His manner is jokey but he does seem happiest when talking about the big picture, rather than the nitty-gritty of policy detail. He may work out of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but his thoughts roam through the departments of health, work and pensions and the Home Office.
A strikingly youthful demeanour (he's actually 40) coupled with his rapid rise to the Cabinet have seen him dubbed the Boy Wonder – indeed, this very magazine portrayed him as that particular superhero shortly after his promotion.
His career closely mirrors New Labour's upward trajectory. With a first in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford and a Masters in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mili-band joined Tony Blair's office as head of policy in 1994, staying on in this role throughout Labour's first term.
The second landslide of 2001 brought him to the Commons as MP for South Shields, and there was just one year on the backbenches before government beckoned. He served as schools minister and there was a brief spell at the Cabinet Office before he was promoted to the full Cabinet itself, following the party's third successive election success in 2005.
And his star continues to rise. Along with his brother Ed (a former adviser to Gordon Brown who entered the Commons last year) and Europe minister Douglas Alexander, Miliband is a key member of a cabal of young MPs widely tipped as the Labour leaders of the future.
Party insiders say he is more than just Blair's 'mini-me', but he enjoys the prime minister's favour: Blair recently named him as a potential inheritor of the New Labour mantle and whenever there is talk of Labour deciding to follow the Tories' lead and skipping a generation post-Blair, it is Miliband's name that is most often in the frame.
With all this baggage, interviewing Miliband is something of an intimidating prospect, but his manner is easy and confident. 'He's very good to work with,' says Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour vice-chair of the Local Government Association. 'He's extremely bright, that's the first impression, but he's very open, very accessible and full of ideas.'
Indeed, Miliband's mouth can't always keep up with his mind. He talks fluently and fast, leaning forward, elbows on knees, to emphasise his point, and although he is stuffed up with a cold he remains as sharp as his reputation suggests.
With a local government white paper due out in the summer and Sir Michael Lyons scheduled to deliver his final verdict on the form, function and financing of local government, 2006 is shaping up to be a crucial year for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Although Miliband has enthusiastically nailed his colours to the localism mast, town hall leaders are anxious for action.
He is dismissive of the suggestion that warm words are all the government has. The most significant thing, he says, is that it's not just the ODPM that is signed up to the localism agenda but the rest of government, too.
'I don't think there's any absence of action,' he says. 'This notion that you need neighbourhood services that are flexible and adaptable and integrated to meet local needs, [backed by] strategic leadership at a coterminous local authority level, is very strong. I think it fits naturally with the fact that the government has spent a lot of time trying to build up the capacity of some of the national services and it's now got to move on, to tune those services to deliver diverse local needs.'
He's been impressed, he says, with the innovation and confidence of local government. In a recent speech to the New Local Government Network, he indicated that Whitehall might be prepared to slacken its hold on councils.
Although he says it is 'inconceivable' that the government will abandon national standards for key service areas such as children in care, he acknowledges that the time is right to look to a world beyond the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. 'As you strengthen bottom-up accountability, you've got to reform top-down accountability, whether it be inspectorates or targets or regulations,' he says, adding that the experience of Local Area Agreements has shown that around areas of local liveability and local economic development there is scope for 'much more flexibility' from national government.
Listen to a Miliband speech and you're likely to hear quotes from sociologists, anthropologists and political thinkers – perhaps unsurprising for a son of the celebrated Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband.
Miliband Jnr bridles slightly when I suggest his speeches have something of a learned bent ('it's not always a compliment when people say politicians' speeches are academic'), but admits to being a perennial student. 'I think one's always learning,' he says. 'You can't tell people to do lifelong learning and not do it yourself.'
Preparation is important. He's been reading Lord Scarman's 1981 report into the Brixton riots in preparation for the Scarman lecture he was due to deliver on January 31.
'If you're giving a speech about race and multi-ethnic Britain and you pretend you're the first person to think about it or write about it or speak about it, then you're asking for trouble. You've got to know whose shoulders you're standing on,' he says.
But Labour insiders say that Miliband's wonkiness could prove to be his undoing. 'In a brief like local government where you've got to win over hearts and minds, it could be that he's too clever by half,' one says.
'If David does want to go the distance, he's going to have to find a way of courting the Labour Party in the country.'
How long he will stay at the ODPM is anyone's guess. With a degree of uncertainty surrounding the current Cabinet make-up – Whitehall watchers have been expecting a mini-reshuffle for weeks – Miliband is often singled out as a prime candidate for a move. But he is charmingly guarded when I ask if there are any jobs he has his eye on. 'It's very important in politics not to wish for new jobs because it can imply that you're out of a job completely,' he smiles. 'I actually believe people should stay long enough to make a difference.'
And Miliband is certain that the ODPM is making a difference, reeling off a dizzying list of statistics, from the rate of new building on brownfield land, to cuts in the number of young families living in bed and breakfast accommodation, to the success of the CPA.
'Look,' he says, with something of a Blair-like emphasis, 'the Olympics wouldn't be happening without the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the Thames Gateway, and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the Thames Gateway wouldn't be happening without the deputy prime minister.'
He is full of praise for Prescott and grinningly agrees that many people thought they were something of an odd couple when they began working together.
'But actually, we've turned out to be a very good team. I think he's a very brave politician… he's honest, he looks at the facts, he's got good judgement and he's also very, very loyal. He's loyal to the government but he's loyal to the people who work for him. He's been very loyal and supportive to me and we're the…' he thinks for a moment, 'we're the Shearer and Sheringham of the government.'
It's an appropriate analogy to come from the football-mad Miliband. He takes great pride in his position as president of non-league South Shields FC, the Mariners. 'My London team is Arsenal and my Northeast team is the South Shields Mariners. My constituency is half Newcastle, half Sunderland, so it's a bit of a third-way position to support South Shields.'
Despite the rigours of a Cabinet job, Miliband manages to make time for his constituency, going up with his family most weekends. He says serving his constituents is an important part of his political outlook and he tries to be out in the town as much as he can.
'I try to support and connect with and engage people,' he says. 'You know what community means when you go to somewhere like South Shields. They are very good people and I get a huge amount out of seeing those lives and seeing how they change.'
His wife Louise Shackelton, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra (they have an adopted baby boy, Isaac) has introduced him to the pleasures of classical music. 'When I go and listen to her play, that is very nice, it's very relaxing,' he says.
There is just time for a few words on another rising young David. David Cameron and Miliband were Oxford contemporaries, although Miliband says they did not know each other. 'He was in a rather different circle at Oxford than I was. The Bullingdon Club didn't fraternise with people like me,' he says with a smile.
Miliband says the new Tory leader is 'obviously good at PR' but observes that Cameron is finding it easier to ditch policy than develop it. 'Where he's trying to make policy I think he's got himself into quite difficult terrain, and he's made people ask: “Is the Tory party any different than it used to be?” We'll just have to wait and see over the next few years what's he's offering.'
As for whether he sees himself facing Cameron across the despatch box one of these days, he bursts out laughing: 'I'm pretty confident Gordon Brown will see him off!'
How very on-message.