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The biography of a nobody

A biography of Ed Miliband has to try hard not to be the sort of thing one buys as a present for someone one avidly dislikes.

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre

Biteback, pp.336, 17.99

A biography of Ed Miliband has to try hard not to be the sort of thing one buys as a present for someone one avidly dislikes. This effort, the first in what its authors seem (perhaps optimistically) to imagine may be a long series of accounts of their subject’s life, does not try hard enough. It has detail — Messrs Hasan and Macintyre boast of a million words of interview transcripts — but in the end it is, plainly and simply, stultifyingly boring. I am not sure this is entirely the writers’ faults. Before reading their book, I thought Mr Miliband was simply oversold, a man born to disappoint. Now I realise that he, and therefore an account of his life, is boring too.

The authors seem to like their subject, though there are moments of what pass for objectivity in their description of his uninteresting life and tedious times. What is lacking altogether is humour, except unintentionally, as when we are told with great gravity that ‘Gladstone’ coined the phrase ‘greasy poll’. One wades through a sea of earnestness so thick that after just a few pages one is crying out for relief.

The writing style is heavy with adjectives, adverbs and clichés. Attempts are made to entice the reader into believing the story is in fact exciting, notably at the ends of chapters where the authors attempt what the soap-operas call a ‘cliff-hanger’ ending. Perhaps one is supposed to possess a heart of stone not to be thrilled by such lines as: ‘But in 2005, a leadership bid was a long way off, and despite his considerable success in Doncaster, Ed Miliband still had a political — and personal — mountain to climb.’

The story begins with the moment when Ed told his brother, David, that he proposed to stand against him for the Labour leadership. The authors have done their research, and have found that the accounts given by partisans of each Miliband of when the news was brought from Ed to David differ widely each from the other. We then romp back into Miliband pre-history, with the fortunate escape of the brothers’ somewhat sinister Marxist father, Ralph (né Adolfe or Adolphe, depending on which page one reads) from Brussels just before the Nazis get there in May 1940. Miliband père was a Jew, and members of his extended family were murdered in Hitler’s genocide. On arriving in England, Ralph went to the LSE and became an academic, spending the next half-century advocating political theories that ended up being discredited at every turn. There is a lesson there for his younger son, but one he appears to be in no hurry to take.

We are treated to an account of the brothers’ lives at an inner-London comprehensive school, which is presented as a mixture of educational experiment and preparation for prison. Then there is an almost Pooterish description of Ed’s remarkably uninteresting spell at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he masterminded (to the apparent admiration of the authors) a boycott of formal hall because of rent rises. He was a bit of a rebel, and no mistake.

It is, however, by this early stage in the book that one starts to feel one is losing the will to carry on. An account of a remark made by one of the congregation at Ralph’s funeral in 1994 — telling her husband, on hearing Ed’s eulogy to his father, that he is the one in the family now committed to ‘progressive’ politics — betokens the grim fanaticism of what is to come. Young Ed goes to work for A Week in Politics, where all the other lefties on the programme (and they were all, it seems, lefties) loved him; then for Harriet Harman; and finally, he meets his destiny by going to work for Gordon Brown. If you get this far, consider Red Bull to keep you going through the stories of life in the ‘inner circle’ with such lovely people as Ed Balls and Damian MacBride; though that invites the challenge of what stimulation would be required to survive the chapter on Miliband as Minister for Climate Change.

It is a book that raises many questions. Is the cast of nonentities that feature in it (including the subject himself) ever going to account for very much in our lives? Is there actually anything to Ed Miliband? Fundamentally, who in his right mind would want to read a book about this man at this stage in his non-event of a career, unless he were being paid to do so? Labour MPs — a majority of whom did not vote for Miliband, who owes his place to the discredited AV electoral system — are often heard to say, with resignation, that their party is stuck with him until he loses an election. Having read this much-hyped book, one imagines they will not have to wait beyond the next one.

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