Weird, geeky, and out of touch? Public meets the real Ed Miliband
The blinking. The awkward mannerisms. Could the Labour leader really be 'the new Bobby Kennedy'? Oliver Wright watches him in action with the people
A respected political journalist recently went to watch Ed Miliband take part in a question and answer session 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.
In his 11 months as Labour leader, Miliband has been compared to many things (Wallace from Wallace & Gromit springs to mind) but not the great communicator of the Kennedy dynasty. Voters certainly don't see him that way. Despite his party being ahead in the polls Miliband's own personal ratings are disastrous and appear to be getting worse.
Even natural Labour supporters find his public persona disconcerting: weird, geeky, patronising and out of touch are descriptions that are banded about.
So is there something about Ed Miliband in person that the public is missing? That television clips and Prime Minister's Questions are failing to show? And if so, does he have what it takes to change perceptions?
Yesterday Miliband was in Southampton doing a question-and-answer session with group of community activists. He has done dozens of such meetings over the past year and a half, including eight in the past week. Some of them have had audiences of just 10 people.
"We've been doing this now for 18 months – and it's quite an art to get the right people to come," he says. "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 question-and-answer 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. Now if you're trying to do that getting somebody to ask a question about how brilliant the Labour Party that is a bit 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 in a windowless community centre he dominates the room.
But when he starts 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 seem a bit forced. He doesn't quite connect with his audience. Then a strange thing happens. As he answers questions his body language alters. Gone is the blinking, the awkward mannerisms and the strained anecdotes.
He relaxes. He stops questioners in mid-flow and asks them questions back. He gesticulates with his hands to make his points – but not in a weird way. And perhaps strangest of all for any politician he seems to be genuinely listening.
At one point a middle-aged lady, who works as a foster carer, asked him what support a Labour Government could provide her. He questioned her about what she did and she told him the teenager she was looking after was currently in prison having been in trouble with the law on countless times.
"He's one of those you'd not like to bump into a night time," she said. "He's pinched a car, he steals to feed his weed habit and after a while the social services gave up on him. I want someone to help me." Miliband promised to help before telling her a story of a homeless man he had met two days before who had been thrown out of a council house after his mother died because he wasn't on the local authority's register of having lived at the property.
He then broadened the point – bringing in other questioners – before adding the politics: local councils must have a statutory obligation to provide youth services to prevent them from suffering the brunt of the cuts and letting young people fall into a life of crime. It was reminiscent of Tony Blair on form.
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."
Labour wants to introduce "town hall-style debates" at the next election which would allow voters to directly question the political leaders and that would certainly play to Milband's strengths.
Party strategists have held preliminary discussions with broadcasters over the format of future election debates which first took place at the last election. Miliband aides believes he performs better in a question-and-answer style format than in the more formal Presidential style showdowns held in 2010.
Whether that would be enough to overcome the reservations of the voters have already formed their views of Miliband is questionable. Miliband is no Bobby Kennedy – but he may be worth a closer look.
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