Labour leader Ed Miliband serves up that common touch

Ed Miliband has obviously been watching how the Prime Minister did it.

Ed Miliband visits Tesco at Burnt Tree Island, Dudley
Ed Miliband visits Tesco at Burnt Tree Island, Dudley

Ed Miliband has obviously been watching how the Prime Minister did it.

During the election campaign David Cameron stood on a pallet in the stock room of Asda in Wolverhampton and took questions from working people.

Now, six months on, his rival Ed Miliband is taking a leaf out of the Tory leader's book, rather than his defeated former boss Gordon Brown.

Sitting in the canteen of Tesco by the Burnt Tree island in Dudley the new Labour leader is trying to re-establish his party's common touch.

Gordon Brown would have hated it. Challenged about MPs' expenses, tuition fees and the minimum wage the former PM would have inevitably rattled off how it was a global financial crisis and bombarded the shop staff with numbers about how many people Labour lifted out of poverty.

But 40-year-old Mr Miliband is careful not to blame individuals. He wants to know where "we" went wrong and what he needs to do to bring the voters back.

Dudley was a bitter blow to Labour. Three of its four Parliamentary seats fell to the Tories and Ian Austin, the former West Midlands regional minister, held on with a slender majority in Dudley North.

Mr Miliband knows he's already campaigning for 2015 and that it will be the best chance he has of getting Labour back into power. If he fails against the coalition, or worse helps Mr Cameron to win a full Tory majority, then he will have proved that his older brother David should have won the leadership instead.

Mr Miliband recently came to visit Labour members in West Bromwich and yesterday was his second trip to the Black Country since his election as leader.

"The West Midlands is a key battleground for the next election", he told the Express & Star. "Ian Austin held on but that wasn't true across the rest of the West Midlands and we have to address that." Carefully making sure to learn everyone's name he looked them in the eye as he said: "We are embarking on a process of looking at our policy for the future and we need to talk to people like yourselves about where we went right and wrong."

They did not hold back. One woman expressed her disbelief that she and her husband both work full-time yet have less than the family up the street who claim benefits.

Another said she was concerned that her son, who is not yet 21, is not able to get the minimum wage.

Nur Haque, aged 22, from Small Heath in Birmingham, is now on a graduate training scheme with Tesco but struggled to get a job after finishing his public policy management and international relations degree at Aston University.

He revealed he had voted Tory out of disgust over the MPs' expenses scandal.

"It was difficult to get a job, despite everyone telling us that going to university meant you would be better off," he said. "Then the MPs' expenses were revealed and everyone lost trust.

"I voted for a different party but a lot of my friends just didn't bother because they thought you were all the same."

Mr Miliband said to them: "Trust is massive for politics, we've got to recognise it. But it's not about making promises we can't keep. It's about keeping to the ones that we do make."

Simon Thornbury, aged 28, of Hilltop Road, Kates Hill, said he felt Britain had lost its sense of self-respect. "We were only a small island on the map but we were a massive player in the rest of the world", he said. "Now it seems that the deficit means we're just a little island again."

Mr Miliband briefly trotted out one of Gordon Brown's old lines and said: "The deficit was low until the huge global recession hit. We have to remember that we were in huge debt after the Second World War but we still managed to build the NHS and the welfare state."

The meet and greet at Tesco was not meant to be a chance for Labour's new leader to make promises.

"As a political party we have to listen to people and get back in touch with them," he went on. "It's not about unveiling lots of policies in the eighth or ninth week since I became leader. There is a real battle about the squeezed middle classes."

He appeared to have charmed the supermarket staff, who presented him with a cuddly toy for his baby son Samuel.

But Mr Miliband will face a struggle to convince voters that Labour is on the side of the middle classes following increases in National Insurance, the scrapping of mortgage interest relief, withdrawal of married couples' allowance and rises in fuel and alcohol duties during the party's 13 years in power. No wonder he wants to start now.