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Coffee House

Miliband’s sense of humour failure over relatively helpful question

27 May 2014

4:04 PM

27 May 2014

4:04 PM

Ed Miliband has just delivered his post-European and local elections comeback speech in Thurrock, to show that he’s not afraid to confront the challenges that Labour still faces in the run-up to 2015. I’ll post on the details of the speech and what it means shortly, but one exchange in the Q&A told us quite a lot not just about Miliband but politicians in general. Here is a video clip:

And here is the transcript:

Journalist: ‘Peter Dominiczak from the Telegraph. You’ve been attacked in your party for being too wordy and too academic. I wondered if you could give us here today just one word that defines your leadership and tells voters what makes you different and sets you apart from the other party leaders?’

[Miliband rolls eyes and sighs]

[Alt-Text]


Now, of course journalists are annoying and of course some of the questions we ask suggest that we’d be complete pains at the supper table or in the pub. But our job is not to bow and scrape around political leaders, or to befriend them and make their lives easy with deferential questions and sycophantic copy. We can leave that to their party websites, their colleagues writing fatuous op-eds or parroting lines to take on the airwaves and producing party political broadcasts with emotional backing music. We are not here to ask Ed Miliband whether he agrees that tackling the cost-of-living crisis affecting hardworking families up and down the country is an excellent campaign for Labour. Our job is to be inconvenient for the people running the country or those who want to run the country on behalf of the public.

Peter’s question wasn’t even a cruel one. It wasn’t about bacon sandwiches. It wasn’t about Miliband’s shopping bill. It wasn’t a pop quiz of local Labour councillors. It repeated briefings not from journalists but from Labour MPs who worry that the man who will lead them into the next election is too wordy and academic, and then gave him an opportunity to sum up his values in one word. Many politicians would welcome such an opportunity for the quickest soundbite ever, but the Labour leader rolled his eyes.

Miliband, by way of sticking two fingers up to Peter, chose two words, and then a very wordy explanation of what those words, One Nation, meant to him. His reaction betrayed a curious sense of humour failure. Miliband is probably the most humble and apparently decent of the three main party leaders, and doesn’t mind a bit of self-deprecating humour at times. But while Jon Cruddas seemed to find the question very funny indeed, chuckling away behind his leader, Miliband didn’t. His physical response to the question can be summed up very easily in one word: precious.

Those who’ve worked with political leaders over the years recognise this as a problem that all those at the top face: they assume that anything that isn’t the Serious and Substantial Subject they’ve chosen for discussion is merely fluff.

Actually, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling of marginal seats, which was largely reassuring for Labour, showed us at the weekend, Ed Miliband’s appeal to voters is a serious and substantial subject that the party is interested in. Journalists who ask questions about this needn’t base them on their own assessment of Miliband, but one offered by voters in polls and Miliband’s colleagues in briefings. If Miliband wants to roll his eyes at anyone, it should be his colleagues who are sneaking out and telling newspapers that they think he’s a bit weird, not the newspapers who report it.

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