Ed Miliband may now be on the backbenches but the former Labour leader has found a new outlet to discuss big political ideas - an award-winning podcast. Chris Burn reports.
Following a chastening General Election defeat in 2015, an emotional Ed Miliband stepped down as Labour leader with a promise that he would continue fighting for the ideas he believed could change the country for the better. It is fair to say that nobody, including the Doncaster North MP himself, expected that less than three years later perhaps his most-effective vehicle for doing so would be an internet podcast.
For the last six months, Miliband and radio presenter Geoff Lloyd have been meeting up each week to record episodes of Reasons to be Cheerful, a light-hearted look at big political ideas with special guests exploring how best to tackle issues like the gender pay gap, prison over-crowding and homelessness. The show has a regular audience of around 80,000 people who download episodes and it was recently named ‘Podcast of the Year’ by the Broadcasting Press Guild.
The friends, who met when Lloyd interviewed Miliband when he was Labour leader and immediately struck it off, have been taking the show on the road and are preparing to host a live episode at Sheffield City Hall later this month as part of the city’s Festival of Debate.
Miliband, who has over 750,000 followers on Twitter, says podcasting is all part of the way the internet has revolutionised the way politicians can communicate their ideas and beliefs. “Maybe 20 years ago, I would have gone off and set up a think-tank. In the internet age, this is the kind of equivalent.”
He says they are keen for the show to encompass a wide range of views. “We are not trying to be BBC Balham but we are trying to appeal across the political spectrum and try not to make it party political.”
Following their victory at the prestigious Broadcasting Press Guild awards last month, Miliband posted a wry message thanking Lloyd “and obviously the British people for their decision in 2015” for making the award possible.
He is too much of a experienced politician to answer when asked if he is happier now than he would have been as Prime Minister but laughingly admits he “probably wouldn’t be podcasting” if he was currently in Downing Street. However, it seems clear Miliband is relishing life the greater freedom to speak his mind and explore ideas than he had when he was in charge of the Labour party and facing the responsibility of convincing spectical voters he was the man to lead the country.
“I was incredibly disappointed to lose the General Election but you move on,” he says. “You don’t spend your time looking back. It was hard in the year or so after the election but you gradually come out of it. You get one life and there is no point spending your time brooding. As I said in my resignation speech, there are others ways to encourage the ideas I care about.”
Miliband had been contemplating the idea of doing a podcast but was uncertain about the idea until a successful week sitting in as the host on Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show - including a memorable attempt at screaming like a death-metal singer - convinced him it would be possible to do a show that mixed serious and light-hearted elements in the way he hoped. The pair were all set to get started last summer until Theresa May surprised the nation by calling a snap General Election for June and Miliband’s time was taken up with campaign commitments.
They eventually got started in September and have recorded almost 30 episodes since then. “I didn’t really know how it would go. We initially did one as I said ‘Let’s do a pilot’ because I was quite nervous about it. We thought it went reasonably well and now we record once a week religiously.”
Miliband says doing the show and speaking to a wide range of people has given him a different perspective on several issues than he held when he was Labour leader after speaking to the likes of Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director at drugs charity Release and Vicky Pryce, who spent nine weeks in prison for perverting the course of justice in relation to accepting driving licence penalty points incurred by her ex-husband, politician Chris Huhne.
“I was more convinced for the case of drug decriminalisation, particularly of cannabis, than I was when I was leader. Another was prison reform and that we are sending an awful lot of people to prison and looking them up for no good use.
“Another one was universal basic income, this idea that everyone gets a regular sum of money from the Government. That is a huge idea. I’m not sure I would have had it in a manifesto but I might have said let’s trial it.”
He says one big advantage of no longer being a frontline politician is being less constrained in discussing and contemplating big ideas like these. Miliband says doing the show has also given him greater optimism for the future.
“Speaking to our guests, you realise that if you look at any problem from homelessness to crime, there is a solution out there. With homelessness, we talked to this guy from Finland last week about a scheme called Housing First, where homeless people are offered stable housing instead of temporary accommodation. They are closing their shelters as a result. It has made me optimistic.
“Even for someone who lost the General Election, I think I have always felt more optimistic than some people. I feel like people are hungry for change. With Trump and Brexit, whatever your stance on them, it spoke to people who wanted something different and wanted change to happen.”
Meanwhile, Miliband says while he understands many people don’t download podcasts, they offer a different experience to listeners than traditional radio shows. “It is quite interesting because it is quite an intimate experience. You have got to go and seek it out, it is not like having the radio on in the background. The people who listen tend to be fans or they stop listening pretty quickly because it is personal choice. It was great we won the award and we were in great company with David Attenborough [who won best documentary series for Blue Planet II].
“It was incredibly flattering to be recognised. One thing that is great about this format is you get instant feedback from people. Sometimes with social media you have feedback of a certain type but this tends to be more constructive - ‘I liked that, more of this please’.”
He says while he couldn’t pick a favourite podcast guest, he learnt much from speaking to the father of a trans child and enjoyed chatting to the Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir about everything from her pioneering gender pay gap policy to the potential existence of Icelandic trolls.
Miliband says the pair hope the Sheffield live show will be informing and entertaining. “That is what we try and do. But we also want to make people feel optimistic.”
Largest-ever line-up for festival
Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee are among the other star names appearing at this year’s Sheffield Festival of Debate.
The event is now in its fourth year and has arranged its biggest programme with more than 75 events between April 18 and June 29.
Festival founder James Lock said: “Our chance for a better world comes from facing issues head on, learning new points of view, making the effort to listen and being empathetic with one another. We believe this is everyone’s responsibility and hope that this year’s Festival programme goes some way to furthering that ideal.”
For more information, visit www.festivalofdebate.com.