In praise of authenticity: If he's going to win the next election, Ed Miliband needs to be real

Someone needs to tell the Labour leader that he should just be himself
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The Independent Online

The Midland hotel in Manchester has seen some political action over the years. Here is the bar where Damian McBride, brandishing a bottle of Peroni, was forced to make a 3.15am announcement that Ruth Kelly was resigning from Gordon Brown's government. There is the lift where David Miliband was overheard telling an aide he didn't want to "do a Heseltine" by overshadowing Brown. Over there, the lobby where Chris Grayling gaffed over David Cameron's last speech as leader of the opposition.

You can sit on the sofas where the elder Miliband's supporters drowned their sorrows after their man was beaten by his brother. When so much in the conference hall is carefully controlled stage management, the Midland, and other conference hotels, is politics in its raw, booze-fuelled, ambition-suffused chaos.

Even during conferences as flat as Labour's last week, it was near-impossible to find a seat in the Midland bar. I eventually found a spare armchair at a table where a pensioner couple, wearing Labour activist passes, were sharing a pot of tea. Lucy and John Benton, 83 and 86, told me they had been coming to Labour conference for 60 years. Their first was in 1954, when Clement Attlee was still Labour leader. John, then a young party agent, found himself in the gents next to the former prime minister but was too shy to introduce himself. There was no fanfare for the party leader back then, the Bentons explained, it was more about policies and issues. Today, it is all about the leader and the speech.

Ed Miliband ignored the advice of his allies and shadow ministers to speak from a lectern rather than his no-notes walkabout. He thought that his chatty style, with a smattering of anecdotes of him meeting real people, would be the most authentic way he could present himself to the electorate for the start of what he called his eight-month job interview. As we now know, it was a colossal mistake because he forgot to talk about the deficit and immigration. I am told that his relations with Ed Balls have not improved in recent months, so maybe he just wants to put the economy out of his mind. But it was equally a mistake to talk about Gareth, Xiomara and Elizabeth – even if it was more a device to remember different passages (one Labour figure joked to me that there should have been someone called "Derek the Deficit"). His wandering on Hampstead Heath, like a geeky King Lear, was simply not believable.

 

It is no coincidence that the best speeches of the conference season so far have been the most authentic. If we can include Scotland in this, Brown's two speeches, before and after the vote, were passionate, heartfelt and utterly believable. Harry Smith, the 91-year-old Second World War veteran, writer and campaigner, moved many in Manchester's conference hall to tears when he talked about his experience of the NHS. I'm pretty sure no one in the audience cried at Miliband's speech, unless you count the tears of despair.

And authenticity matters. If you can make voters believe in you then they will trust you to handle the economy competently, help your wages rise, protect the NHS. Policies about more GPs, nurses and homes will not be believed if they come from a leader who does not sound authentic. The same goes for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, of course. When Cameron put his airbrushed face to a 2010 election poster that promised to cut the deficit, not the NHS, it didn't quite ring true to voters – they believed only the first part, so he didn't win an outright majority.

Labour's policies – on housing and GP access – are attractive. If this were the age of Attlee, that would be fine. Giving policies a convincing public face wasn't necessary – which was just as well, as the Bentons would tell you, because Attlee had zero charisma. This is not about slick PR, but having a leader people can believe in. Miliband's advisers (if he listens to them any more) should tell him to be himself.

Save us from the PWAGs

The sight of the GWAGs (that's Golf Wives and Girlfriends) at Gleneagles last week for the Ryder Cup's "Parade of the Wives" was hideous. And during conference season each party leader is joined onstage at the end of their big speech by their wives (or PWAGs, if we must). There is little difference between this parade and the one at the Ryder Cup. I would rather hear what Justine Thornton, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez have to say than what they are wearing and whether they do one kiss or two. And let's say Yvette Cooper is leader of her party next year – after her barnstorming speech does she welcome on stage the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls?

Heirs the question

The death of Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, reminds me of one of my unpopular obsessions: the campaign for equality in the aristocracy. Deborah was the youngest of the Mitford sisters, but it was their only brother, Thomas, who had the right to inherit their father's title as Baron Redesdale, rather than the eldest child, Nancy. Thomas was killed in action in the Second World War, so the title passed to their uncle. Decades later, the current Baron Redesdale is the Lib Dem peer Rupert Mitford. The aristocracy equality campaigners, known as the Hares, are still fighting for their daughters to be recognised as heirs.

NiMo's wake-up call

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – or NiMo as she is known in Westminster – has put her name to the End Violence Against Women Coalition campaign calling for compulsory sex education on domestic violence, pornography and female genital mutilation from the age of 11.

Cue outrage from a "family" group called Parents Outloud, who say this is an agenda being pushed by "hugely aggressive feminist groups". It is sad that Parents Outloud seem more obsessed with the "aggression" of feminists than the actual abuse of women and girls. Aggressive or not, equality groups are celebrating after finding NiMo has, after voting against gay marriage last year, some interest in equality.

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