In a rare interview with Mehdi Hasan, Ed Miliband's closest aide and ally, Stewart Wood, talks about life in opposition, Ed Balls' ministerial future and the threat from Nigel Farage.
To understand what makes Ed Miliband tick, it’s worth getting to know Stewart Wood. If, as the polls suggest, the Labour leader wins the next election and becomes prime minister, Lord Wood of Anfield may well become the second-most-powerful man in the land.
Wood, who has been described as Miliband’s “consigliere” and “ideas man”, is the shadow cabinet minister without portfolio, based in the Leader of the Opposition’s Norman Shaw South office in Westminster. Don’t let the obscure job title – or the fact that he works behind the scenes and tends not to give interviews – fool you: Wood is the Labour leader’s closest frontbench friend and ally, the most trusted and longest-serving member of Miliband’s tight-knit, inner circle.
The latter met Wood in 1995, when Miliband went to visit an old friend, the economist David Soskice, in Germany. Soskice ran a research institute in Berlin and Wood – a graduate of Oxford and Harvard - was one of his PhD students. “We clicked straight away and stayed in touch,” Wood told James Macintyre and me when we spoke to him for our biography of the Labour leader in 2011.
From 1996, Wood taught political science at Magdalen College, Oxford, where his students included, among others, Labour frontbencher Rushanara Ali and George Osborne adviser Rupert Harrison. The academic, however, was keen to switch from teaching politics, to practicing it. In 2001, he secured a five-year break from his teaching post at Oxford University and went to work at the Treasury, as a member of Gordon Brown’s Council of Economic Advisers, at the invitation of Ed Miliband – after being turned down for a culture adviser job in the Downing Street Policy Unit by none other than David Miliband.
The younger Miliband bonded with Wood – not just over centre-left politics and polices, and their shared vision of what Britain and the world should look like, but in their keenness to build relationships and friendships across ideological and factional lines. They were card-carrying Brownites, yes, but not the kind of Brownites who craved constant conflict with the Blairites next door.
Nonetheless, almost a decade later, on 12 May 2010, it was Wood who sat in the front room of Miliband’s Dartmouth Park home, urging the former energy secretary to join the race for the Labour leadership and take on his Blairite brother David. And it was Wood who, later that same day, nervously waited in the Monsoon Indian restaurant in Primrose Hill, while Miliband went round the corner to his elder brother’s home to break the news of his own candidacy.
It was Wood who also, over the course of July, August and September 2010, masterminded the younger Miliband’s “insurgent” and “outsider” campaign for the Labour leadership – which ended with a razor-thin victory over brother David at the party conference in Manchester on 25 September. “Is this just a one-man campaign?” the Financial Times’s political editor, George Parker, is said to have asked Wood a few days after Miliband declared his candidacy. “Are you doing everything?”
BEST OF FRIENDS
These days, of course, Wood doesn’t have to do everything. Miliband has plenty of aides and advisers and, in Tim Livesey, an able and trusted chief of staff. In January 2011, Wood was given a peerage and promoted to the shadow cabinet, in what he describes to me as “a move from the backroom to the front line”. What was Miliband’s motivation? “He wanted people who get him, who can make the arguments he wants to make and do it… within the party and, occasionally, in public.”
I meet Wood in the ground floor atrium of Portcullis House, in Westminster, the day after the shadow minister tweeted: “I am so happy. I just got mistaken for Zac Goldsmith MP in the coffee queue.” (The Telegraph promptly commissioned an online poll to determine which of the two men was “most handsome” – a poll that Wood, bizarrely, topped.)
So, who exactly confused the 45-year-old ginger-haired, Oxford don-turned-Labour peer with the 38-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed millionaire Tory MP?
“A guy who had a visitor’s pass on grabbed me, as Zac Goldsmith was walking past, and said ‘Hello… Oh sorry, I thought you were Zac.” He laughs out loud.
Who else has he been mistaken for? “I got mistaken by some Japanese tourists for Charles Kennedy outside Westminster tube station. Anybody who can be mistaken for both Zac Goldsmith and Charles Kennedy has some sort of impressionist talent.”
Wood has known Miliband for 18 years – what does he like most about the Labour leader? “Often you get politicians who are passionate about values, very sincere [and] earnest, and other politicians who have extraordinary people skills, who treat people with respect and decency. I love the combination of both in Ed.”
Prior to working for Miliband, Wood served as a special adviser on foreign affairs and Northern Ireland to Brown in Downing Street, during the latter’s crisis-ridden premiership. What is it like to constantly be at the side of a party leader? Tiring? Frustrating?
“It’s exhausting and it’s extraordinary stimulating,” he admits. “When you leave [the office] it takes a while to wind down as you wonder whether the phone will ring or something will happen… You are engaged pretty much constantly and you have to fight for down time.”
Does Ed contact him in his off time as much as Gordon Brown did? The former prime minister is notorious for having pestered his aides and fellow ministers with emails and phone calls at all times of the day and night. Wood dodges my question. I push him again. “[Ed] does text a lot,” the peer concedes.
What’s it like working for Miliband, having spent so many years at Brown’s side? What are the main differences in style between the two Labour leaders?
“In terms of style, Ed is collegiate. He looks for views early, before he makes up his mind. Gordon wanted us to respond to his ideas [after] he had already taken them a long way down the line.”
Wood adds: “It’s also a generational thing. Ed is my age and is a friend. It’s very different working for someone like that.”
Political leaders are often criticized for surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’, with advisers and allies who don’t stand up to them or tell them when things are going wrong – either out of fear or sycophancy. Wood, however, believes that the fact he is a friend of Miliband makes it “easier” to criticise the Leader of the Opposition “He wouldn’t forgive people like me if we weren’t honest. Unlike a lot of other politicians, he invites people to give him constructive criticism. He has a desire to improve [and] he solicits views from people across the party. “
The peer can often be spotted in the Commons gallery, on Wednesday afternoons, watching PMQs. I am told that he also helps the Labour leader prepare for the weekly bout with David Cameron beforehand, in his parliamentary office. What, in his view, are Miliband’s strengths and weaknesses at the dispatch box?
“What do I think he’s best at?” He pauses. “I think he’s very good at mastering detail and using detail to get to the nub of a big issue.” In contrast, he says, when it comes to detail, “Cameron struggles”.
Ok, so what are Miliband’s weaknesses at PMQs? “I think what he’s not good at I will keep to myself and tell him privately. “ He laughs loudly.
INSIDE PROJECT ED
Wood is self-deprecating and charming; he is known for his impish sense of humour as well as his big brain. The former academic, who still teaches the occasional class at Oxford, has been one of the key figures driving Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ agenda, the latter’s break with ‘New Labour’ neoliberalism and the promotion of Milibandian catchphrases such as “predistribution” and the “squeezed middle”.
If anyone understands Project Ed, it is Wood. Can he, therefore, tell me why he believes Miliband should be prime minister? “Oh, because he is someone who has deep principle, who has intellectual courage, who has the ability to unite a team behind a project, who has the appetite for running the country. “ Really, an appetite for power? “ Absolutely, yes. He wouldn’t have run for the leader if he didn’t have the appetite. You could argue that it would have been easier for him to not run.” He grins. “I think you may have written a book about all this.”
How radical is the Labour leader? Some on the left say Miliband is a bland centrist who, rhetoric aside, is no different to his New Labour predecessors.
“He is very radical,” argues Wood. “He believes there are things about this country that need to be changed… We are one of the first Labour parties that are radically trying to challenge large energy companies, companies [that] the Thatcher settlement set up as big economic players… that’s one thing we’re taking on. [Ed] is not afraid of taking on vested interests.”
The Labour peer continues: “He is unashamedly talking about inequality after a period in which some people were afraid of using the word ‘equality’.”
Miliband took over the party, he argues, after a period “in which Gordon and Tony thought credibility demanded not challenging certain types of economic interests too much. Ed has gone beyond that – partly because of timing. The crash sort of changed the rules.”
The shadow minister talks passionately about the need for better education, training and skills, for boosting productivity, for what he has called a “supply side revolution from the left”. “We need to change the rules of way the economy works,” he tells me, sipping on a bottle of sparkling water. “That’s quite a social-democratic idea.”
Is One Nation Labour under Ed Miliband, I wonder, to the left of New Labour under Blair and Brown? “We’re a centre-left party. I consider myself a social democrat. “
I ask again. “After 2008 crash we find ourselves in a position where the public is probably in your terms, in a much more ‘left wing’ position on issues like bankers’ bonuses than a lot the political classes are,” replies Wood. “I think the rules of left/right on these things are quite different now.”
Do he and his colleagues in the Labour leader’s office get annoyed by the near-constant criticisms from the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson? In April 2013, the former prime minister wrote a column for the New Statesman in which he warned that “the Labour Party is back as the party opposing ‘Tory cuts’… For the Conservatives, this scenario is less menacing than it seems.” Blair also seemed to suggest the the Miliband-led Labour Party was in a “comfort zone”.
Wood shrugs. “We have opposed Tory cuts. He’s right about that… I don’t agree we’re in a comfort zone at all. Ed’s done two speeches on immigration, we’re addressing welfare.”
He adds, in a quiet voice: “I think the key thing is not to be afraid of people who were in ministerial jobs in the past from expressing their views. You hear them, you always listen…but you reserve the right to disagree.”
THE GHOST OF IRAQ
Having served in the Blair and Brown administrations, what does the shadow minister without portfolio think his party got wrong in government? What was the single biggest mistake of the 1997-2010 period?
“Every government gets things wrong,” Wood tells me. “My personal view - and it’s not shared by everyone in my party - is that the Iraq war was a mistake and a mistake that had bad consequences for our party but also bad as a foreign policy move in itself.”
Why hasn’t his boss, who also opposed the invasion of Iraq and, in the past, expressed public regret, made any mention of that war since becoming leader and giving his first party conference speech in September 2010? The tenth anniversary of the invasion came and went without a peep from Miliband – despite the fact that the party’s internal focus groups reveal that the Labour leader has a great deal of public support for his position on Iraq.
“Well, if you’re leader of the Labour Party now, the issues you focus on are Libya, followed by Syria and the rest of the Middle East.”
Isn’t Miliband’s failure to remind the voters of his anti-war position on Iraq best explained by the fact that he has to appease pro-war members of the shadow cabinet? Wood shakes his head. “I don’t agree with you. It’s not true that he is silent on Iraq for any tactical issue.”
On Syria, some senior Labour sources suggest it is the doveish Wood who has been urging Miliband to stay firm on opposing any arms transfer to the rebels – a claim he doesn’t deny.
“It’s true that we are very sceptical of the case for arming the rebels,” he says. “For a range of reasons: we’re sceptical that the destination for the weapons could be controlled… [sceptical] that it would lead to a decisive victory that would lead to a stable settlement not just for Syria but for the region.”
The UN estimates the death toll in Syria is on the verge of crossing 100,000. Won’t the rising number of innocent casualties put pressure on Labour to drop its opposition to arming the rebels?
“Everyone feels pressure to respond when violence escalates and casualties increase. Those who think the choice is action versus inaction…” he pauses. “I reject that choice. It’s nonsense.” The shadow minister says a response to the carnage in Syria is necessary but it has be “effective” and be able to “reduce the level of violence”.
He won’t rule out a change of in the party’s position on Syria, however. “At this stage, it would be pretty premature for us to rule out by fiat our support for things in the future.”
Our conversation turns to issues closer to home. In recent weeks, Labour has controversially dropped its opposition to some of the coalition’s welfare reforms and announced that the party won’t restore the cut in child benefit to high earners but will remove the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest pensioners.
Unsurprisingly, Wood defends Labour’s apparent U-turn on benefit cuts. “The reason we cant promise to restore things the government has been cutting for the past three years is not because we’ve changed our mind on the wisdom of doing those things [but] because the state of the economy we’ll inherit is both uncertain and likely to be much worse than before.”
He continues: “We are basically now preparing for the sort of boundaries of what we’re going to do in government.
What about the left’s argument that this is an assault on universalism, in which the Labour Party has now become complicit? Wood isn’t impressed. “The welfare state is always a mixture of means-tested benefits, universal benefits and contributory benefits… I don’t think the Tories need our moves in order to take a hatchet to a different part of the welfare state.”
BALLS UP - AND OUT?
Does he agree with those inside and outside his party who argue that Labour needs to apologise for its fiscal record in office in order to win back credibility on the economy?
The peer responds by citing the two Eds’ apology on bank regulation as the correct approach. “I think you should apologise when you genuinely think you got wrong.
“The inadequate regulation of the banks was the cause of the financial disaster… and that had a catastrophic effect on the public finances. That in my view is the right analysis of what happened on the economy.”
At a recent press conference, Ed Balls said: “Do I think the last Labour government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.” It was a comment later ridiculed by the prime minister in the Commons.
Does he share the shadow chancellor’s view? “That’s certainly my view, yes.” So the last Labour government wasn’t profligate? “That’s right, yeah.”
On public spending, it seems, Camp Ed M is on the same page as Camp Ed B. But how long will Balls be Labour’s spokesman on the economy? Some suggest the former chancellor Alistair Darling could return to the frontbench ahead of the 2015 general election.
Wood tries to evade my question. “Ed Balls is our shadow chancellor. I’m very glad we have Ed Balls and not George Osborne.”
What about the whispers that Darling will replace Balls once the Scottish independence campaign is over in 2014?
“They’re wrong… I do believe [Balls] will be the chancellor in the next Labour government.”
Wood tries to put a positive spin on Labour’s seeming retreat on fiscal policy – both Eds have given speeches in recent days in which they warned their audiences that a Labour government in 2015 would inherit, and have to stick to, coalition spending plans – at least, that is, on day-to-day current spending.
What Balls has said so far, argues Wood, is that “shadow cabinet ministers, when we get into power in 2015, are going to have to make tough choices about what they’re not going to spend on in order to finance what they are going to spend on… We didn’t say we’re going do exactly whatever the Tories do. “
The peer starts talking about “switch spending”. I interrupt. Will Labour cabinet ministers have to stick to the Tory/Lib Dem departmental spending totals that they inherit? Yes or no?
“Wait for us to set out our rules,” answers a diplomatic Wood.
But he isn’t ruling out increasing spending in certain departments, is he? Otherwise, surely, Labour is doing “exactly whatever the Tories” planned to do, right?
“That’s true,” he answers. “Of course, we’re going take a view on the balance between different departments.”
Tax avoidance has been a big issue for the Labour leadership, too – Miliband attacked Google’s failure to pay its fair share at a summit hosted by the company in Hertfordshire in May. It has since emerged that the party accepted a £1.65m donation in the form of shares, from businessman John Mills, which may have helped Mills avoid up to £700,000 in tax.
Wood is adamant that “no member of Labour’s staff advised him to make a donation in this way. John Mills wanted to make this donation in this way to give the party a steady and reliable source of income.”
The Labour Party will need both distinctive and credible fiscal policies and steady and reliable sources of income if it is to win a Commons majority at the next general election. Another close ally of Miliband, former cabinet minister Peter Hain, has predicted a hung parliament in 2015, followed by a Lib-Lab coalition. Wood disagrees with him. “Of course, yeah. I think we can win a majority and we will win a majority. We have a strategy…”
I interrupt. Is this the so-called ‘35% strategy’, outlined by Telegraph blogger and arch-critic of Miliband, Dan Hodges?
“No, Dan Hodges got that from one of his sources close to someone who once walked past a shadow cabinet minister.” He chuckles. “We have a strategy based on getting a majority. Of course it is.”
Can a party win a parliamentary majority when its leader is doing so badly in the polls? Wood doesn’t look or sound worried. Referring to both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, he says that “leaders of the opposition get better over time. They learn.”
Isn’t he being complacent? Miliband’s personal poll ratings are close to dire. Wood is defiant: “On personal ratings, all three main party leaders other than Farage are suffering from the ‘plague on all your houses’ view of the public. Ratings for all of them are lower than [party] leaders in the past. Ed’s net rating is higher than Cameron’s.”
But doesn’t Cameron rate better as a leader, as a prime minister? Again, Wood doesn’t seem too bothered. “On ‘do you look more prime ministerial?’, Gordon Brown was beating David Cameron basically till the eve of the  election.”
DON'T BAN NIGEL
Miliband, I’m told, sees the leaders’ debates in 2015 as an opportunity to transform his personal image and poll ratings. Wood says he himself is looking forward to the debates: “I don’t quite see how David Cameron, who was so passionate about having them last time, can refuse them this time.
“I think the British public will find it very odd if Cameron comes up with some ‘principled’ reason why we shouldn’t have debates.”
When I wonder aloud whether Labour would consider empty-chairing Cameron, were he to refuse to participate, the shadow cabinet minister can’t resist a joke. “Perhaps we’ll do a Clint Eastwood, and have a little chair next to [Ed] and have an imagined conversation with [Cameron].”
Would Labour be willing to allow Ukip’s Nigel Farage to join the leaders’ debates?
“I don’t know whether Farage will be in the debate or not.” Should he be? There’s a pause. “I genuinely don’t know the answer to that.” But there shouldn’t be a ban on him participating alongside Cameron, Clegg and Miliband? “I think that Farage has become a major figure in our politics, whether you like it or not. My personal view is I wouldn’t have a blanket ban, no.”
It isn’t just the Tories who are threatened by the rise and rise of Ukip. The anti-EU party surged to second place in the 3 May by-election in South Shields, a safe Labour seat.
“I think we should take Ukip very seriously, not just as an issue in Labour seats, but as the main vehicle at the moment for the ‘plague on all your houses’ sentiment from the British public,” Wood tells me.
He says he finds the rise of the “very right-wing” Ukip “very worrying”: “Not just in a terms of sapping votes from everyone point of view but as a social democrat.”
Can the Labour leadership, under pressure not just from the Tories and Ukip, but from a growing number of its own backbenchers and activists, seriously go into the next general election refusing to offer the public a vote on our membership of the EU? Miliband has referred to Tory plans for an in/out referendum as a “gimmick”.
“We’re going make a judgement whether to have a referendum” before the next election, says Wood.
Does the peer personally support an in/out EU referendum? In theory? There’s a very long pause. “I don’t think you can have a view on that without the date, actually.” He pauses again. The division bell sounds. He continues: “We are already committed to having a referendum if there is a treaty change. But I think, given the state of economic certainty in this country but also in the Eurozone, the right thing to do is to wait till the election [to make a decision].”
But it is conceivable that Labour could offer a referendum, right? “It’s conceivable because we are going to make up our minds before the next election when we have a manifesto to put to the British people.”