CAMDEN’S Labour Party members, teachers at Haverstock School and some of its pupils got a taste of how the rolling press pack operates today, booing and whistling as Nick Robinson and company ignored the premise of Ed Miliband’s visit to Chalk Farm and fired one question after another about his views on tax avoidance and his new favourite sparring partner Lord Fink.
You could see that some of the locals in the assembly hall of Miliband’s old school felt their leader was being bullied by a whole leash of media troublemakers at the back. He had come to talk about Labour’s education policies ahead of the general election. They instead wanted to talk about what adjectives he might have in mind today for Conservative Party donors. Boo. The nasties. “Stop hijacking this,” someone in the back row called.
When Robinson (above), without naming names, asked about Labour donors chipping in with the use of shares rather than money – a hardly veiled snag at another hometown hero to these spectators, former Camden councillor John Mills – you could feel the growls rattle underneath the rows of school chairs. Mills, it should be said, had fought his own battle on Newsnight last night.
As if the champion peacemaker, Miliband met the discontented murmurs by raising two open palms to his supporters and theatrically urging the irritated crowd not to draw weapons. There was that mess a few weeks ago when in similar circumstances Labour activists told a BBC man to go back home, south, after he asked a question in the north they didn’t like. Here Miliband, however, seemed to be enjoying the Lionheart act, a tough guy fending off the arrows in his own back yard, in front of an audience. And that audience was quickly impressed by his come on then, I’ll take you all on routine as he kept going back to the media corner for more of this apparent punishment. I promised, I promised, I promised to take more media questions, he repeatedly explained.
But of course this suited everybody bar the parents and education heads who had wanted expanded answers about Labour’s election offer to schools. It allowed each TV news reporter to have themselves filmed essentially asking Miliband the same thing as the reporter before them, for a nightly news cut which’ll make it look they were the one who dared interrupt the party to ask as searing question about tax avoidance.
And it suited Miliband. For he was ready with the answers. He was happy to answer them.
Lord Fink had already pulled back from his threats to sue him earlier in the day and was talking about how “everyone does tax avoidance at some level” in an early riser interview with the Standard. The more questions, the more Ed could cry back: Well, I don’t. And these people don’t. Never, ever. None of them, And yet this guy was appointed the Tory treasurer. Zing! Write that down again. He said EVERYONE does tax avoidance at some level. WE DON’T. And the Tories picked him as treasurer.
This kind of show fits into Labour’s rarely-disguised them (posh and rich) and us (normal and not rich) strategy, which also explains why its leader loves coming back to his old comprehensive Haverstock School for speeches.
He can point to the genuinely excellent work that its headteacher John Dowd (and a clearly effective staff and governing body) has done with the students in these past years, while at the same time reminding everybody that he didn’t go to Eton. Eton, not me. Eton, that other bloke.
The journalists had his speech about education in their hands. They knew last night what he was going to say. So after filing the basic outlines of the policies – capped class numbers and so on – they were always going to want something new, and the news agenda has been set all week by the Guardian and the BBC’s HSBC stories. So as much as the community folk wanted to know about what Miliband thought of mean old Ofsted denigrating teachers, or what he could offer parents with under-threes, the Finkathon went on and on and on.
Ed, really, did not seem to mind.