Swansea University was visited by MP David Miliband on February 7th for the official launch of the Living Wage campaign. We interviewed him for his thoughts on employment, education, and the changing relationship between politicians and the press.
In interviews with politicians you often come across comments on how tired or stressed they appear, with attention being drawn to the permanent dark shadows under their eyes and smudges of makeup left over from appearances on television. For his visit to Swansea University, David Miliband appears to be neither tired nor stressed as he stands outside Fulton House to meet the Living Wage team- his resignation from the shadow cabinet in 2010 apparently suiting him rather well. Instead he is cheerful, alert- almost geeky in his enthusiasm; greeting students and commenting on how cold everyone’s hands are.
He leans against his chair in the interview room after his speech in the Taliesin building, relaxed and at ease- laughing uproariously when asked for his thoughts on the recent Sunderland vs. Swansea match by a journalist from a local radio station. For the interview with The Siren, myself and a fellow student journalist from The Waterfront take it in turns- with Miliband leaning towards whoever is asking a question at the time.
In December 2011 Labour Party leader Ed Miliband highlighted the recurring factors amongst those convicted during the riots: low qualifications, excluded from schools, and two thirds of them with special educational needs. When asked for his [David Miliband’s] thoughts on whether these factors provide evidence of a clear failure of the education system for those convicted, he has trouble putting an answer together.
“I think that the educational failure… in and of itself is a waste, never mind the link, to query the causality- to query whether or not it’s a causality or not… to riot,” he begins falteringly.
“Rioting’s wrong whether you’re well-educated or not. I think that the vast majority of people… well-educated or not, were appalled by the riots, and felt that the country had been humiliated, which is sort of what I felt. I think that the real face of Britain in a way was the reaction- the sort of broom army, etc.”
“But we can’t be complacent,” he adds with more conviction. “And so… I think that educational under-achievement… well. Half of the long-term unemployed, even in the good times, the youth unemployment had no GCSE’s, and that’s what we’ve got to tackle.”
So already on the first question it’s difficult to glean a straight answer. Maybe we’ve reached a critical point where politicians are trying to forget the riots ever happened, or maybe Miliband just wasn’t expecting the subject to arise, but he certainly stumbles a little on the way to making a concise point. Perhaps, more simply, it’s because he’s a politician.
Next is the correlation between functional illiteracy and crime, and whether Miliband believes that there should be more than two days a year (World Book Day/Night) where young people are encouraged to read; as well as what Labour’s plans are in terms of improving literacy in the UK.
“Well we’re told that- I get a note from my kid’s teacher every week saying ‘we expect you to read to your children ten minutes a night’, at least ten minutes in fact, which is good actually,” he tells me.
“I mean it is absolutely shocking when you look at the figures of middle-class kids… I can’t remember them exactly but… I mean a middle-class kid by the age of 4 has got… I can’t remember… 200,000 words that they’ve heard- while kids from the poorest families have only heard 10,000 words. So you can see that inequality starts well before anyone’s earning any income.”
A review in 2002 by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Office for Standards in Education of almost 6,000 boys screened on admission to 11 custodial sentences found that 4% had attainment at pre-entry level literacy (lower than would be expected of a 7 year old). In 2006 the Youth Justice Board (YJB) reported that 25% of young offenders had special educational needs, and 46% were rated as underachieving at school.
“You can’t rely on the education system to do everything,” Miliband says after a brief pause. “But one of the precious legacies of the last government which I see in my own constituency is Sure Start and the free education of 3 and 4 year olds. It is absolutely essential that we don’t see a rolling bag of the gains there, and the gains from Sure Start are that it’s not just for the kids; it’s for the parents as well. So I feel very strongly that it’s not just that there are just private responsibilities when it comes to reading and it’s not just one day a year- you’ve got to start early.”
Miliband was recently quoted on his belief that “youth unemployment emergency”, with a report commissioned by Aveco (chaired by Miliband), stating that the current levels of youth unemployment will cost the public purse at least £4.8 billion in 2012.
“Yes,” he nods. “We’ve got 600 wards in the country where the claiming count is twice the National average [according to the report, the worst accumulations include south Wales], and those are areas of youth unemployment emergency.”
Asked for what he considers to be the most important step that the government needs to make, he spoke of the plan to ensure that those who have been unemployed for more than six months are guaranteed a part-time job.
“One of our proposals is that that after you’ve been unemployed for half a year you guarantee a part-time job. That is a pretty big… that is a big bazooka,” he says.
Another suggestion to at least partly-solve the issue is that young people in full-time employment would mentor those out of work. I suddenly find myself being grilled for my opinion on whether it sounds like a good idea.
“What do you think about this?” Miliband asks eagerly. “We propose this mentoring scheme where if you’re in work for a year and you’re under 25 you’re automatically registered to mentor someone who’s out of work for a year. What do you think?”
Asked for the details on exactly how the scheme would work, Miliband rattles off a list of ideas including support, networking ideas, and information on how they themselves were successful in finding full-time employment, stabbing the table with a finger for each point he makes.
“The NUJ are already doing something like that, older journalists mentoring,” the reporter from The Waterfront pipes up. Miliband raises his eyebrows in question- evidently this is something he isn’t as aware of.
“National Union of Journalists-it’s a similar scheme in terms of what it does for students,” I tell him. “Those already involved in the media industry can meet with those who would like to be involved, so there’s a sort of mentoring scheme going on there.”
Here Miliband suddenly grins, almost childish, and looks over my shoulder at the journalist sitting on the sofa.
“That’s good,” he says. “We should definitely get the older journalists to, erm…”
Everyone in the room chuckles, with Miliband’s laughter above the rest as a reminder of his tendancy to laugh at his own jokes.
“I know one guy who might be open-minded enough to do that,” he adds, mock-thoughtfully.
Pushed for time we skip to the last question: which asks Miliband for his opinion on how past and present relationships between politicians and the press have been and how he feels they will change in the near future. Once again he suddenly becomes very enthusiastic.
“I think that the transparency of the Leveson inquiry, and the soul-searching and the fact that editors have got to go and answer for themselves is a really refreshing and good thing,” he says, beaming. “Because they’ve always been in the shadows, and now they’re actually out there in the open. So I hope that Leveson can come up with some… changes… regulatory changes, if you want to call it that… that are sensible and open-minded about what they are.
“But I also think that there’s a wider cultural point, which is that things will never be the same again,” he says, making a final point. “That it’s been so opened up, and the malfeasance has been so widely documented that… there should be some new… I think that there’s a new humility that’s… you know… welcome.”
David Miliband was born in London on the 15th July 1965. He studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, obtaining a first class honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, then going on to study for a masters degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is married to Louise Shackelton, a professional violinist, with whom he adopted two newborn sons. On December 21st 2010, The Office of David Miliband Limited was formed with Miliband and his wife as directors.