Jayne Dowle: Ed might not like what he’ll hear from voters

Labour leader Ed Miliband. PA
Labour leader Ed Miliband. PA
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GET the kettle on. He’s coming to see you. He keeps on saying he talks a lot to people like us, so he could turn up at your door at any moment. In fact, I hear that he might even be coming to Barnsley today, so I could bump into him doing a bit of shopping between the pound shop and the pile of bricks that is supposed to be the new town centre supermarket.

That’s the recession, in case he hasn’t noticed. Ed Miliband is so keen to stress that he is connected to reality rather than to some other planet, he mentioned a variation on “going round the country and talking to people” no less than three times in that Radio Four interview earlier this week.

I reckon he was briefed to keep trying to get that into the conversation. At least it proved he can summon up some conviction from somewhere. But every time I heard him say it, all it did was underline his desperation to be liked.

I’ve seen Miliband attempt to interact with the public, and it is more painful even than those 20 car-crash minutes with John Humphrys. He looks either bored or terrified. Brief him all you like, but there is nothing any spin doctor can do about that look in his eyes.

But, come on. Let’s have some pity for the poor wretch. As part of his grand re-launch this week, he seems determined to find out what it is voters want from him. And he is being urged on by senior Labour figures such as Alan Johnson, who told him in no uncertain terms to get out on the stump and get to grips with what is really going on.

So what can he learn from towns like ours? Well, if he talks to anyone round here, and I mean really talk, not just nodding and muttering the word “fairness”, but listening and empathising, here are a few things he might discover.

The biggest thing is jobs. People want to know where the jobs are going to come from. Unemployment, especially amongst young people, with a million under-25s out of work, is a massive issue.

Now, we have a bit of a problem here with the logic of the Leader of the Opposition. It is vague, to say the least. He seems to have the idea that taxing the bankers higher will somehow give politicians more money to create jobs. But we all know that the only jobs government can create are those in the public sector, and across the Western world, the state is shrinking.

What we really need is an economic climate and a political will which fosters the growth of opportunities in private enterprise, and that means everywhere, not just in the south of England. That didn’t happen as much as it should have, even in the boom years under the last Labour government. Any Chamber of Commerce in a small to medium-sized Northern town will tell you that. But it has to start happening, and a Labour government has got to understand the nuts and bolts and the lobbying and the patience required.

And what about an educated workforce to do these jobs? Here’s the big Miliband idea. Reduce the cap on university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year. Great. I am sure families everywhere will be rejoicing at that one. So that will be just the £18,000 debt each kid will be facing then, rather than the £27,000 one. Does he not realise that it’s the prospect of any kind of debt that deters countless potential students from going to university? And does he not realise that to make the books balance, it’s not a matter of shaving off a few grand here and there, but a complete reappraisal of the entire university system?

Trim the fat from the institutions themselves, ditch the random courses, think of other uses for those huge empty public buildings over the long summer vacation. You can see why any politician might find it difficult locating the stomach to take that one on, but if he really wants us to believe that he supports “fairness” he has to underpin it with proper policy. It’s become hazy of late, but I seem to remember fairness equalling access to education as a pretty basic Labour tenet.

Which brings us onto, well, there is no other way to put this, himself. In a recent poll, more than a third of Labour supporters were dissatisfied with the way Miliband is doing his job. There are two main dangers here; by supplicating himself in front of the people so willingly, he appears weaker than ever, and by concentrating so much on his own self-image, the time and ability to formulate important policy is limited.

His own time is running out. He has to be honest with himself, and cut this self-delusion. “Noises off”, he calls the growing clamour of discontent within his own party ranks. That’s as nothing compared to the straight talking of Yorkshire folk. He could do worse than listen up.