WC Fields said actors should “never work with animals or children”. There should be a similar adage for politicians: never banter with voters (or party conference delegates) on sport – especially foreign sport – unless you’re sure you know more than they do.
Scanning the raised hands in the auditorium during his Q&A session, Ed Miliband picked out a man called Drew who was wearing a Phoenix Suns basketball team cap. He himself, he told Drew, had followed the Boston Celtics – presumably when he was on his sabbatical at Harvard in 2002-3. “There’s always room for the Bird,” Drew instantly replied. That one, admitted Miliband lamely, was over his head.
With Wikipedia at hand, it’s easy to be smart after the event. Drew, it turns out, was referring to Larry Bird, an all time NBA great who spent 13 seasons with the Celtics up to 1992. And Milband is a baseball nerd, not a basketball one. But it was Drew’s home run. Or it was until he asked his question, which was why we didn’t “get rid of utility prices” altogether. We were an “incredibly rich” country and should be providing energy for “nowt”.
“Come on Drew,” you wanted to scream. “What planet are you on? Have you read the Daily Mail? Do you have any idea about the furore that greeted Miliband’s itsy-bitsy plan for freezing energy prices for just two years? And you want him to abolish them altogether?”
Miliband said politely that he believed he was going about the energy prices issue “in the right way”. And he left it at that.
This summed up the tone of the session. Either delegates congratulated him on his “fantastic speech” on Tuesday (so much so that you longed for a “You know what, Ed, that was a rubbish speech”, just for variety’s sake).
Or they urged him to go a lot further than he had. “You can’t control what you don’t own,” said a woman from the white-collar rail union TSSA, wanting the railways renationalised as each franchise came up for renewal.
Meanwhile, are his colleagues willing Miliband to revert to his earlier non-macho persona? One of the best jokes in the closing conference speech by deputy leader Harriet Harman suggested so. “When John Prescott got egged, he was massively angry and threw a punch. When Ed Miliband got egged, his immediate thought was ‘Oh God – I really hope this is free range...’”
The newly ennobled Labour peer Doreen Lawrence, also spoke. She didn’t labour the warm – but unsentimental – references to her murdered son Stephen. She was modest. She didn’t rant about the Tories. All of which was quite a relief after some of the Shadow Cabinet speeches this week.