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Ed channels Bobby in credibility quest


A respected political journalist recently went to watch Ed Miliband take part in a Q&A with voters in Birmingham and came away with an unexpected conclusion. He suggested afterwards that Miliband's performance that day had shown what his earliest supporters had seen: Ed had a touch of Bobby Kennedy about him.

So is there something about him in person that the public is missing; that TV clips and the bearpit of Prime Minister's Questions fail to show; and if so, does he have what it takes to change perceptions?

Yesterday he was in Southampton for a Q&A with group of community activists. He has done dozens of such meetings over the last year and a half, including eight in the last week alone. Most of them have been under the Westminster media radar and some of them have had audiences of just 10 people.

"It's quite an art to get the right people to come," he tells me. "By the right people, I don't mean our supporters. I mean the people who aren't our supporters, because if you just send out a leaflet you end up with loads of Labour Party members who will fill the place up. We did this session on youth jobs a couple of weeks ago and the first two questions I received were the two most hostile of the whole meeting, but in a way I quite like it. It's a good cultural change because one of the problems that politics faces is a massive detachment from people.

"We're trying to do politics in a different way. If you're trying to do that, getting somebody to ask a question about how brilliant Labour is, it's counter-productive."

In person Miliband is bigger and taller than you expect from seeing him on television. Surrounded by an audience of around 80 people (mainly middle-aged and elderly) in a windowless community centre he dominates the room. But when he starts off talking with a short pre-prepared speech, the old problems are in evidence. He blinks for an inordinately long time while he speaks. His family anecdotes about his father seem a bit forced. He doesn't quite connect with his audience even though they could not be described a hostile. But then a strange thing happens. As he starts answering questions his body language alters. Gone is the blinking, the awkward mannerisms and the strained anecdotes.

Miliband says this direct interaction with voters is what he means by a different type of politics. "Did Sharon Storer [the woman who famously harangued Blair about the NHS] help or hinder him?" he asks. "I think actually it helped him because it showed a willingness to engage, get out there and talk to people. What you've got to do is break through the barrier that says if a politician gets asked a difficult question then it is automatically a disaster for the politician.

"Otherwise all you have is your supporters cheering and waving and everyone else thinking this is all nonsense. It's all made up."