Mark Steel: Why Labour leaders speak drivel

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The Independent Online

Political questions can be complicated matters, posing complex problems such as the role of the state in an economy with a shrinking manufacturing base. But the most unfathomable political puzzle at the moment is: "Why is Ed Miliband so shit?".

Any doubts that he's useless were crushed by his chilling interview about the teachers' strike, in which he answered every question with the same robotic sentences, that: "The strikes are wrong while negotiations are going on" and: "The Government is behaving in a reckless and provocative way" five identical times in a row. The interviewer could have asked: "Do you think Rory Mcilroy will win the British Open?" and he'd have said: "Golfers up and down the country understand these strikes are wrong while negotiations are going on". If his wife, in the fullness of passion growls "Oh Ed, what do you want me to do to you", he'll reply: "I urge all sides to get round the negotiating table, but the Government is behaving in a reckless and provocative way."

The most obvious answer is that he's developed an obsessive compulsive disorder and has to say everything five times or he has a panic attack, which could cause mayhem with the BBC's party conference coverage when he has to make his speech five times until three in the morning. And as it gets worse his questions in parliament will be: "Would the prime minister agree it's a matter of the gravest concern that his cabinet is not sat in alphabetical order?" Then he'll rock backwards and forwards making groaning noises until they shuffle round, and cry that Iain Duncan Smith is D and not S and needs to get next to Clegg NOW.

And the Labour Party will insist there's no vacancy for leader and he's on course for victory.

But in one sense Ed should be applauded as upholding the Labour tradition, because a pattern has been established, of apparently passionate figures rising to the party leadership, then instantly becoming unable to say anything that isn't incoherent drivel. For example, Michael Foot was known as a great orator, then took over as leader and opted for a speaking style in which he appeared to yell random words such as "icicle".

Then came Neil Kinnock, bursting with rhetoric from the pits, until he became leader when he couldn't ask for a glass of orange squash without waffling: "Beverages, in as much as that which does quirst, has not, will not, can not, must not, should not, might not, indeed not forget-me-not be construed from other than orange, which is not to say orange." He'd lean across to Margaret Thatcher and say "Is it not the case, that the party opposite is a party not of co-operation but of confrontation, not of cohesion but of corrosion, not of oregano but of origami."

And John Prescott was a stirring speaker before he was deputy leader. But now you almost feel sorry for whichever poor sod at the News of the World had to decipher his conversations after they'd hacked into them. There must have been a trainee copying down: "I'm making demandation on a deliverment of pizzas as well you know this is pepperonius", and assuming it was a code and he was in league with the rebels in Angola.

The cause may be the route they took, of trying to become "proper" politicians, no threat to bankers, oil companies or Murdoch, but what they think a leader is supposed to be. They adopted a style and language not their own, and the result was complete nonsense. Whereas Blair, who had no background as an inspiration or orator but only as a lawyer, could easily become whatever he wanted.

Now it's Ed Miliband's turn. Because the truth is if he had treatment and was able to answer a question on the teachers' strike by saying: "I've got a tortoise and it lives in a box", that would actually be progress.