A few weeks ago, I heard an almighty struggle with our letterbox, followed by this invitation cascading to the floor:
I was slightly baffled that whoever had created the invitation had gone to the trouble of inserting my name and adding Ed’s signature in such a realistic manner at the bottom, yet whoever delivered it had apparently seen fit to stamp on it, let the lettering get smudged and wrestle it through the letterbox in one go instead of folding it neatly in half.
But I am a woman of substance over style, so I ignored its dubious appearance and followed up on the content, securing my place at the event. How could I resist a chance to see the leader of the Opposition in person? I had to find out whether there was any truth to the “weird” label that the media have attributed to him.
The location was at The Old Market, a theatre / live events venue just off the Western Road in the city centre. I walked along expecting a security presence to manifest, but it was a quiet, sunny day and there were no signs of the side street being sealed off. People were ambling towards the entrance, so I followed suit, was name-checked just inside the door, and told to make my way to the bar area. (No need to tell me that one twice.)
I was struck by the fact that the age range was much broader than previous middle-of-a-weekday events I’ve attended. There were lots of students; there were quite a few people who, like me, worked freelance and had given themselves the time off to make it; and there were quite a few people of retirement age, but not disproportionately so. In the bar area there was a refreshment stand (only tea, coffee and water… but it was 10.30am…) and event banners like this one:
The doors to the event room soon opened and we flooded in. I secured a seat in the second row on the left-hand side. The set-up was a semi-circle of about 300 chairs for the audience, with a perspex podium front and centre. It took about twenty minutes for Ed Miliband and Peter Kyle, the candidate for Hove & Portslade, to arrive, but in the meantime I had a great conversation with the woman sitting next to me about politics, freelancing and careers advice (or lack thereof) in secondary schools.
Then suddenly the room burst into applause, and the two men walked towards the podium. Bizarrely, Peter Kyle stepped forwards first, almost blocking Ed from view, and talked about his own life, educational background and why he’d make a good MP. During this period, I could see why the description “weird” might stick: Ed’s facial expression was pretty much rabbit-in-headlights. He didn’t know what to do with himself while Peter was talking, and I wasn’t sure what was happening. It turned out that Peter was supposed to be introducing Ed, which he eventually tagged on to the end of his “I’m Peter Kyle” speech, and we applauded again.
As soon as Ed began to talk, all traces of awkwardness disappeared. His voice sounded strong; his timing and gestures were assured.
He started by saying that Labour are seeking to do politics in a different way. David Cameron’s view is a trickle-down economy; their view is to use the talents of every single person, because if working people succeed, Britain succeeds. Labour would raise the minimum wage to over £8/hour and ban zero-hours contracts. They would support the young by cutting tuition fees to £6k/year and guarantee apprenticeships / vocational training for school leavers at 18 who want it. He surmised this section with the soundbites “Every person is a wealth creator.” and “Going to university is not a market choice, but a public investment.”
He moved on to housing, saying there is “no bigger priority than building homes again”. Local housing authorities should have the power to set aside a certain number of homes for first-time buyers and to ban them from purchase by buy-to-let landlords. Labour would seek an end to letting fees imposed by estate agents, set up a register of landlords and increase the standard tenancy period from six months to three years. Rents would be partially controlled in that they would have to rise predictably, according to an agreed formula; landlords could no longer arbitrarily hike the rent.
He rounded off the opening remarks by saying the NHS is “our proudest institution as a country” and he really fears what would happen if David Cameron followed through on his idea to roll back to 1930s levels of spending on healthcare.
Having kept his opening speech brief (I think it was about five minutes), he opened the floor to questions. His method for doing this was quite slick: he’d take four or five questions in one go, note down the first name of the questioner and a few words on their question, and then give his answers. (One of the audience members addressed him as “Mr Miliband”, and he said “call me Ed”, which is why I’ve taken the liberty of doing so throughout this post.) He didn’t mix up any of the name & question pairings, and seemed to remember where the questioners had been sitting.
I made a quick note of most of the questions and the topics included housing, proportional representation, immigration, food banks, mental health services, pensions, the EU, the Ukraine, the NHS and politicians’ self-interest. Here are a few of the Q&As in note form, with apologies for any errors or omissions:
Question from Gabrielle: Where do you stand on PR?
Answer from Ed: I supported AV, we had a referendum on it, and we lost. I think we need to shelve the idea and there are more important areas to look at, for example House of Lords reform. Changing the voting system isn’t as important as changing the way the country works.
Question from Gemma: Will you give an in / out referendum on EU membership?
Answer from Ed: I wouldn’t, because it isn’t the priority, and I believe our future lies inside Europe. It’s in the best interests of the country to stay in the EU.
Question from Zoe: I volunteer at a local food bank and often people need to use it because their benefits have been delayed; could you improve the situation?
Answer from Ed: There are three main reasons people need food banks: as you’ve said, when benefit payments don’t go through in time; high rents; and low incomes. These are all causes Labour will address.
Question from Nick: There is a drain on mental health services; what would you do about this?
Answer from Ed: Mental health has too long been the poor relation of physical health, and within that, child and adolescent mental health services are even poorer relations. We need to provide proper access to talking therapies and Labour would raise the proportion of spending, with particular focus on child & adolescent mental heath care.
Question from Jamie: How can we protect priority services such as housing, education and healthcare from rising EU migration?
Answer from Ed: I understand there are resource issues, but the NHS would collapse without immigrant nurses and doctors; the vast majority are workers making a net contribution. Would like to see a role for it within the EU budget so that countries being asked to find services for a large influx of people are given help to do so.
Question from Tony: The NHS requires longer-term planning; can’t we have a cross-party approach, like there is when it comes to the Bank of England?
Answer from Ed: It’s not possible because there are big political disagreements about the NHS; parties can only work together where they share broadly the same philosophy, but the Conservatives and Labour have very different philosophies on healthcare.
Question from Valerie: The SaveHove campaign was set up 10 years ago to save Hove from a massive development on the seafront. We’re concerned that one of the developers involved has backed Peter Kyle to the tune of £10,000.
(Blurry photo showing reactions of Peter Kyle on the right and the unimpressed audience member next to him.)
Ed defers this one to Peter, who stands up and answers: I have set up a community campaign team and an open shopfront in central Hove. We need fundraising to run this campaign. Josh was a local property developer but has assured me he has no further interest building in this city.
Ed adds: Labour are the party that will stand up against large developers, and tell those buying brownfield land that they need to either use it or lose it.
Question from Rodney: The Green Party have been disastrous at running our local council. Would Labour do better?
Answer from Ed: There’s clearly a bad record from the Green council. It’s up to you how to vote in both the council and general elections, but we know it’s a choice between a Labour government or a Tory government. If you don’t vote for Peter Kyle, you might end up with David Cameron.
Question from Astrid: Would Labour consider reversing decisions on fracking and invest in renewable energy?
Answer from Ed: On fracking, we agreed 13 conditions with the government; then they went ahead without them. Labour would follow those conditions to make sure the locations were safe and suitable. We need to do more on renewable energy.
Throughout the exchanges, which lasted over an hour, Ed was good at making eye contact and was careful to address each section of the room in turn, so that nobody felt left out. (I was so caught up in it that I only remembered to put my hand up towards the end, and wasn’t called on. Sorry!) When he got particularly passionate, he drifted forwards in front of the podium:
and it did feel like an open discussion. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was difficult to find fault with the way he said it.
In his closing remarks, he said that we may have arrived convinced or unconvinced and leave convinced or unconvinced to vote Labour; it’s up to us. Politics is too important to be left only to politicians. It’s about the people holding the government accountable, and he will be only too happy to be subject to our scrutiny if he becomes the next Prime Minister. (I’ll hold him to that!) He pointed us in the direction of the three Labour candidates in the room, gave a final endorsement of Peter Kyle, and left to loud applause.
Well, Ed, there’s good news and bad news. I can’t confirm that I’ll be voting Labour on 7th May. But I can confirm that you’re not weird.