Laboured conversation on the issues that matter most

Mouth Julia Freeman Woolpert

Twenty-five down; 3,999,975 to go.

Ed Miliband has promised to squeeze in four million conversations with the British public before the general election and the first of them took place a stone’s throw away from Lord Byron’s grave in Hucknall, a few miles outside Nottingham. There wasn’t much poetry on offer but a little of the old seducer’s charm must have rubbed off. “I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting people,” he said in his introduction. For once, he looked and sounded as if he almost meant it. He smiled, he looked relaxed and maintained eye contact without alarming anyone.

The Labour leader pledged to do a different type of politics. No more trading abuse with David Cameron at prime minister’s questions; apart from at PMQs of course. He wanted the country to understand that politics really mattered. His mother and father had cared passionately about politics and he did, too. There was no mention of his brother. Maybe David has gone off politics.

What he wanted most, though, was to talk “about the issues that matter” with real people at weekly ‘People’s Question Time’ sessions like this.

“I don’t want easy questions,” he insisted. “That’s why I sent out invitations to this event to voters from all parties and not just to Labour supporters.” Either the letters to the Sherwood Tories in this marginal constituency went missing in the post or their recipients could think of better ways to spend the afternoon; the trickiest question Miliband got all afternoon was from a man whose son was threatening to vote Green because Labour had become too mainstream. “I’m sure we’re on the same side,” the Labour leader said, thrilled not to be labelled Red Ed. “But we must be practical. I’ll call your son later.”

Most questions were fairly predictable; as were their answers. The NHS was a national treasure and he would give it more money but he wasn’t going to make any promises on funding that he wasn’t going to keep. It was definitely a good thing that people were living longer – who would have thought? – but there were costs attached.

Tuition fees were a problem but he wasn’t going “to do a Nick Clegg” and make promises he couldn’t keep. He wasn’t going to make any promises on who he would or wouldn’t do a coalition deal with after the election because he was “entirely focused” on winning a majority. This last non-promise promise stretched the boundaries of credibility but everything else was entirely reasonable. The only problem was that no one was much the wiser about what he would or wouldn’t do if he became prime minister in May other than be a bit less nasty than the Tories. It’s a start, I suppose.

Just occasionally things became more random. One woman asked what appeared to be an existential question on the nature of kindness and non-kindness. Even David Hume would have struggled with that and a line of sweat appeared on Miliband’s upper lip and his eyes span ever faster. “We are kind and I think we’re kind,” he replied, taking moral relativism to a new multiverse.

He also struggled when a man asked him a very long and technical question about the IR 35 tax form for pensioners. “I’m not going to wing this one,” he said, having clearly been planning to do just that. “By the second minute of your question I was completely lost.” Who says politicians are incapable of honesty?

By now Ed was flagging a little. The room was quite hot, the event had been going on for the best part of an hour and the strain of being friendly had got to him. The smiles became more forced and the answers more disconnected. Talking to people is a nice idea in principle, but you can have too much of a good thing. Maybe keep the next one to 40 minutes.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Friday 9th January 2015 00.42 Europe/London

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