So, no pressure, Ed. Walk in the park. Hop on stage, say a few words, get off. That’s showbiz. Just an intimate little chat surrounded by a few loyal friends. You might get a clip on the evening news if you’re lucky.
Of course we overestimate the importance of the leader’s speech during conference season. Not very many are remembered positively. Few ever really change anything. It’s what follows that counts: sustained campaigning, policy development, organisation on the ground, events. Tomorrow night, though, many of us will only over-react, declaring Miliband’s speech to be either a glorious triumph or a humiliating disaster.
The media consensus continues to be that Miliband is failing to convince as a leader and potential prime minister. Certainly the personal poll ratings are bad. And yet Labour’s lead on voting intention is intact. Polls at the weekend which showed seven or eight point leads received very little publicity or press comment. The media’s attitude to these inconvenient polls reminds me of the words of an Ulster woman who supposedly told a TV crew at the height of the Troubles: “Those things you are filming over there aren’t happening.” They don’t report solid Labour leads because they can’t or won’t believe they are true.
I have written here before about the Westminster bubble factor, and there is no sign of it going away. I suspect this bubble phenomenon will survive until election day. No matter if fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers or watching the main news bulletins. Journalists continue to fight their corner with determination. They don’t like or rate Miliband, and they don’t see why anybody else should either.
This is classic “template” thinking. Miliband does not confirm to the clichéd image or style of what many think a leader should be like. He is consensual where others have been confrontational, and he speaks softly where others have shouted. He eschews most PR gimmicks. He offers thoughtful answers rather than glib soundbites.
Most pundits hate it. And many voters seem unconvinced about Miliband personally. But just over three years after a severe election defeat, Labour stands poised to enter government again. Not everything is going wrong for the opposition. The government is not popular. Weak economic recovery has been oversold. Living standards for most are under pressure. And Ed Miliband, according to the bookies, who tend to know about these things, is still favourite to be the next prime minister.
What I hope we get tomorrow, along with a firmer sense of policy direction and a stronger feel for what the purpose of a new Labour government will be, is a clearer picture of Ed Miliband the man. Like many of those who get to speak with him privately, or know him personally, I’ve seen the warmth and humour that is perhaps too rarely on display in public. It’s a serious business, getting ready to be prime minister, and it is clear that Miliband takes this responsibility seriously.
But without succumbing to the temptation to hug a husky or a hoody, Miliband can afford to have a more personal, informal conversation with his audience. Some naughty people on his campaign team suggested that “Ed speaks human”, in contrast to other the leadership candidates (well, one candidate in particular). Now is the time to prove it.
Miliband’s qualities – intelligence, seriousness, his sense of the “big picture”, his commitment to public service – set him apart from the other party leaders. His is well equipped to lead both his party and the country. I just think he needs to let the rest of the country in on this too well-kept secret. And that is perhaps his most important task this Tuesday afternoon in Brighton.
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