“How old is she?”
“Is she your first?”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Do you come here every Friday?”
He fires off questions faster than a laser printer at Labour HQ. But this is Ed Miliband with his mind on Doncaster rather than Downing Street. He subtly adjusts his tone, giving every mum at the local children’s centre a ‘Great to see you!’ as if they’ve met many times before.
It’s easy to forget that to run the country, you must first run a constituency. The Labour leader has been doing that in Doncaster North since 2005. But I want to know whether being a national politician actually allows him time to be a local one too.
We’re in Bentley, in the heart of his constituency, where Ed Miliband is meeting mums and babies. The room is packed with photo opportunities, and he’s good at spotting them.
“I’m coming to the sand pit!” We gather round while he dives straight in, digging around and telling mums, “This is what my kids love too.” He’s in slightly manic mode, not quite the relaxed approach of a local MP. Still, the parents make polite conversation and not a single baby cries.
I catch him in the corridor. “How often do you get to the constituency then Ed?” “I come as often as I can, obviously it’s hard being leader of the Labour party and combining it with the constituency, but I manage to come quite a lot”, he says. I try to push it. “Once a month?” “Well, a bit more if I can.”
I’m interested to know whether he thinks being the leader of a party is a help or a hindrance to his local constituency. “I hope it’s a help”, he says, “because what my constituents are saying to me feeds right back into national party policy”.
We keep the chat brief, because it’s time for another round of ‘Great to see you!’ This time it’s at Don Valley Academy, where a ‘Bite the Ballot’ event is being held to encourage more young people to vote.
The students are being asked how they’d divide Britain’s limited coffers between government departments. Post-2015, this may of course be Ed Miliband’s toughest task. But he mostly resists the urge to lecture, and the students tell me they like him. “He seems quite down to earth. I mean, my dad knows him, so it’s not like nobody knows who he is”, says one.
But you can’t help but wonder whether Doncaster is just a vessel for Ed Miliband to try and become Prime Minister. He’s a former adviser to Gordon Brown who was parachuted into the safest seat the Labour party could find. So outside the school I ask him, “You’re not from Doncaster - do you think they see you as a Yorkshireman or an outsider?” “I came as an outsider” he admits, “But I feel I’ve got to know the area and the people here incredibly well and I hope that I show that my first job is as a representative of this area - that’s what brings me to Parliament.”
Time to test that on Tory turf. Doncaster is hardly marginal, but there are Conservative pockets, and we follow Ed Miliband to one near Fenwick. He digs in, quite literally, for the classic of all photo calls: cutting the sod for a local village hall.
Here they’re not so sure about him. They praise his help with getting the project off the ground, but as much as Ed Miliband tries to charm 92 year-old Betty, she tells me, “He’s not my political party. I won’t be voting for him.”
So I ask Ed Miliband, “People are very polite, but when you’re not here they tell polling companies you shouldn’t be the next Prime Minister, why do you think that is?” I can almost see him scanning his brain for the stock answer. “I don’t pay much attention to polls”, he insists. “The best thing I can do is lay out my priorities and then in fourteen months time the people can decide.”
But there’s no avoiding the latest polling, showing Labour’s lead over the Tories is narrowing while Miliband’s personal ratings stagnate (at best). His ability to relate to people locally, and nationally, is more vital than ever. So it is interesting that on all three of his constituency visits people seem to warm to him more in person than on television. On home turf he’s slightly more relaxed, perhaps even more likable. And as we part ways, I can’t help wondering whether a little more ‘local Ed’, and a little less ‘national politician’, might not do him any harm.