ELECTION EXCLUSIVE: Justine Miliband ‘This Isn’t A Role I Applied For’

Justine Miliband: 'This Isn't A Role I Applied For'

Justine Miliband on the campaign trail

by Contributor |
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As the country heads to the polls, we speak to the (tired) wives of the leaders on the campaign trail. First up - Justine Miliband

By Gaby Hinsliff

For a woman whose life may be turned upside down on Friday, Justine Miliband seems enviably relaxed. She hasn’t, she swears, thought about how she’d handle life in Downing Street if it came to it.

‘I’m a working mother, I’m barely getting through the next 48 hours at the moment!’ says the environmental lawyer and Ed Miliband’s wife. ‘Basically, I operate on a “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” basis. If I find myself in a situation, I want to give careful thought to it, and do my best.’

Doing one’s best seems important to Justine. Today’s tour of Brighton, Hove and Battersea – all knife-edge seats Labour must win – doesn’t end until almost 7pm and, after that, she still has legal work waiting at home, the price of taking out a day a week for electioneering. But she never flags, whether she’s chatting knowledgeably to domestic violence survivors (she handled abuse cases as a young lawyer), knocking on voters’ doors or trying to persuade teenagers in a South London youth club to vote. Suddenly, it’s clear why she famously said she wanted to be known as ‘more than a dress’ on her husband’s arm.

Justine Miliband rallying Labour voters in Brighton [Amit Lennon]
Justine Miliband rallying Labour voters in Brighton [Amit Lennon]

That remark reflected, she says, ‘a sense of humour about the slightly strange role I had found myself catapulted into, where there’s no rule book. The most people knew about me was the make of the dress I wore for Ed’s speech and it was a little “I’d like you to know more about me…” Labour values are my values; I was a member of the party before I met Ed. This isn’t a role I applied for but, if I’m in this role, I kind of want to have a voice. It’s difficult; I’m feeling my way.’

Serious as Justine undeniably is about the job in hand, however, it doesn’t rule out a social life. The Milibands recently dined with George and Amal Clooney. ‘We were invited by mutual friends. She’s an incredibly impressive barrister and they’re a great couple, really progressive.’ And, unexpectedly, she’s mates with Frances Osborne, the Tory Chancellor’s wife. ‘I went on a Central American holiday with Frances! It was full of disasters and we’ve been firm friends ever since.’

It is a life that she may not have imagined for herself growing up in Nottingham, the daughter of academics. It was here that her political sensibilites developed – one big influence on her being the other teenagers she mixed with in the ITV-run theatre classes she attended after school. They, she says, really forged her desire for everyone to have chances in life, regardless of their background. ‘There were sons and daughters of miners, during the miners’ strike; black teenagers being stopped and searched by the police. It was that and going to state school – I wasn’t the brightest in my year, but I was the one who got to Cambridge. It was always really clear to me that if I could go to Cambridge, they could, and there were other reasons why people weren’t.’

But what she lacked – surprisingly for a child actress who appeared in TV shows Dramarama and Hardwicke House – was confidence. ‘I spent most of my time at Cambridge thinking everyone was better than me: more clever, definitely prettier, definitely more fashionable.’ That’s why, she says, she gives talks in state schools now. ‘I say, “If I can do it you can do it; you’ve got to be confident and fake it till you make it. And aim high.”’

Four years after qualifying as a barrister, Justine went to work for the European Commission in Brussels, where her interest in environmental law developed. It’s clear that she loves her career. So how has Ed supported her in it?

‘He is totally supportive psychologically and I can’t tell you what a difference that makes. When I said to him, “So, darling, I’m going out to Nigeria and there’s a code word I need to give you because I’ve just had kidnap training, so if I call you and say this code word you need to panic,” he just looked at me as if he really wanted to say, “I really, really would prefer you not to go and leave me and the children.” But he never said that, he just said fine and wrote down the code word. Recently, I’ve been working 15-hours days and I have had the most difficult time in court, but a lot of what’s kept me going is that Ed’s totally believed I should do it.’

Asked how they’ve managed such demanding hours while raising sons Daniel, five, and four-year-old Samuel, she credits their nanny and ‘three extraordinary grandparents’, but confesses, ‘We did joke that the house had… I don’t know how best to put it: creaked at the seams.’ You get the feeling both Milibands would rather change the world than make-over their now infamous kitchen.

Justine with Labour leader husband Ed Miliband [PA]

The couple first met at a dinner party thrown by journalist Stephanie Flanders, who, unbeknown to Justine, was at the time secretly dating Ed. So what has she made of outbreaks of ‘Milifandom’ among teenage girls with a crush on her husband? ‘Obviously, I think Ed’s great – I married him! But I confess I’ve been rather bemused. It certainly goes to prove that political life is never dull.’

Although their sons are too young to grasp much about the election, Justine and Ed have tried to explain it using a picture book about a battle between the spotty party and the stripy party. ‘It’s The Election by Eleanor Levenson. There are two children, Evie and Alex… they all go out leafleting and there’s a television debate and they cast a vote. It’s just been brilliant, we’ve read that a few times.’

So why should Grazia readers cast their vote on 7 May? ‘It changes everything. A lot of the work I do is challenging political decisions. I see how frustrated people get, and everything leads back to the power to call politicians to account.’

As for Samantha Cameron and Miriam González Durántez, ‘It’s always very friendly when we meet; I think there’s a shared experience of this rather unusual life.’ But she swears they haven’t swapped notes ‘in detail’. Oh, to be a fly on the wall if that ever happens…

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