Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Ed Miliband takes to the hustings in the shadow of Attlee... and Mr Whippy

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The man in the Brookings Meat caravan who mics up to advertise his wares – “£10 pounds for a chicken, beautiful bit of beef” – gracefully fell silent to allow Ed Miliband to stand on a pallet and promote his own product in Long Eaton’s Market Place: “One Nation Labour.” Carmella Barbero, selling ice creams on the Mr Whippy van, went even further and told the Labour leader: “Business is no good, because people have no money.”

Perhaps out of gratitude to Ms Barbero, who had so graphically described the local economic blight, the Labour leader punctuated his one hour meet-the-people session by inviting his audience of around 100 to buy from her. By the end, he was able to proclaim, in the day’s most excruciating mixed  metaphor: “The Mr Whippy ices are selling like hot cakes!”

John Major used a soap box  during the 1992 election – still the last in which the Conservatives won an outright majority. But by 21st-century norms, Mr Miliband’s latest campaigning technique, of setting up in a town’s high street and talking to anyone who will listen, is positively unorthodox.

What gives it an edge, in an era of heavily controlled electioneering, is the pleasurable anticipation that anything could happen.

The most surreal moment had occurred earlier, in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, when the gurgled phonemes of 22-month-old Archie James rang out down the high street at eerily high volume as he nestled in the arms of his grandfather, who was trying to use the roving microphone to  complain that immigration was taking “British jobs”. (This is a question that Mr Miliband answers easily because it concerns one of the “mistakes” which he repeatedly says was made by the previous Labour government.)

But while a core of Labour Party loyalists form the audience’s nucleus, they are organically swelled by interested outsiders, such as a fairly cross Mick Hewitt, 66, who was  considering a protest vote for Ukip and told Miliband: “Your oratory was brilliant, but I’m  undecided right? I will vote for you but it’s the team I won’t vote for – [Ed] Balls’s Labour Party – the  other people that let us down the  last time.”

Ed Miliband replied that he therefore only had a “few hours” to persuade Mr Hewitt before the polls opened in today’s council elections. For just a nanosecond we feared a marathon Castro-style harangue. But Miliband merely mounted a sterling defence of his Shadow Chancellor as the “one man” who had been willing as a “trained economist” to say in 2010 that “this conservative plan wouldn’t work.”

Curiously, the ghosts of Labour leaders past seemed to follow Mr Miliband in Derbyshire. He was told he was the first to visit Swadlincote since Hugh Gaitskell. And, in Long Eaton, Brenda White, 78, recalled that Clement Attlee had spoken at the identical spot in the 1945 general election. Gaistkell and Attlee would also have had no trouble handling questions from all-comers. So, Miliband went back to the future. And it seemed to work.