Editor's Letter: Does Miliband’s memory deserve sympathy or scorn?

The response to his gaffe has been scathing, but Labour's leader should have known better

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The Independent Online

Morning all. In thinking that Ed Miliband deserves an iota of sympathy for forgetting the two most crucial passages of a 67-minute speech recited from memory, I seem to be in a minority of one. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t recite 6,000 words from memory with a week’s notice. Ed Miliband, however, usually can.

As his own harshest critic, I’m sure he’s kicking himself harder than any political opponent could. Yet when I watched the BBC News at Ten the day after his speech, I saw that the second item was about Miliband’s forgetfulness. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cynical tone of media coverage was a disservice to the voters of Britain.

Here was a man of high intelligence and compassion, whose prodigious memory and courage had allowed him to address a hall of thousands for over an hour, without notes. As we wrote in an editorial on the next day, he articulated a coherent, social democratic alternative to Coalition Britain. He had real policy, and made a serious attempt to address the terrible funding crisis that beckons for the NHS.

But the headlines a full 30 hours afterward still focused on his failure to mention the economy or immigration. Our own front page portrayed him alongside David Cameron, who was overheard divulging private conversations with the Queen, under the headline “Two leaders, two gaffes”. Miliband might with good reason think the media – who always pretend to care about policy – care only about doing him down instead.

And yet I believe that we were right to criticise his forgetfulness, for three reasons.

First, if you make a big song and dance of speaking without notes, you can’t expect to be forgiven when speaking without notes gets you in trouble. Second, the economy and immigration are top among voters’ concerns – and the areas where Labour lags behind the Tories. These subjects deserve special attention. Forgetting them fortifies a widely held impression that Miliband is out of touch with voters. For what it’s worth, I think he does understand what people worry about, and probably better than his main rivals. But forgetting to mention two huge concerns is a genuine story.

Third, we do care about policy at The Independent, and indeed have given a lot of time and space to interrogating Labour’s. So the accusation that we focus solely on the negative isn’t fair, at least when applied to us.

Ed Miliband is an extremely decent and clever politician. But his memory lapse this week was a bad error that makes him less electable. In an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, such slip-ups are unaffordable. If he wants the keys to No 10, he needs a new policy on using Autocue.