"There's a crisis in our democracy," Ed Miliband told the audience at his People's Question Time forum in Stevenage, "and that's why we're doing these meetings – let's energise people."
BuzzFeed News attended the town hall-style meeting, designed to give voters a chance to quiz the Labour leader before the general election, but we left with the impression that he might have to do more to energise the electorate during his proposed "4 million conversations" with voters before May.
The invite-only event was almost entirely attended by Labour members who are likely to vote for him regardless, and they all want to talk about the same thing Ed Miliband wants to talk about: the NHS.
If, as has been reported, Miliband has said he wanted to "weaponise" the NHS, it's worked for the people of Stevenage. Labour has identified the NHS as a weak point for the Conservatives and the audience clearly agreed.
Questions and testimonies came from nurses, patients, and even NHS pensions staff, and Miliband comfortably answered each of them during the 90-minute event, which didn't bring up any dissenting opinions or particularly difficult questions.
He was relaxed, taking a batch of questions at once and then answering them one by one, making sure to use each person's name as often and conspicuously as possible. He made some well-received jokes, and expressed genuine sympathy for personal accounts of NHS difficulty.
There was the odd interesting revelation, such as this.
Miliband also came out with the occasional charming line.
But the Labour-leaning audience members didn't sound blown away after the event.
Labour member and Stevenage resident Bill Nutley, asked Miliband a question about outlawing private schools in order to get rid of "the elitism in this bloody country". He wanted to know what Miliband planned to do about it, but was left unimpressed.
"I could tell he was sympathetic, but the answer didn't go deep enough for me – it felt a bit rushed," said Nutley after the event. "I know there are bigger issues like the NHS, but there's still room for side issues like public schools. But anyway, I'll still vote for him."
Edna Webber, also a Labour member, said she accepted that Miliband has some shortcomings as a leader but said that he's much better than the Conservative alternative. "I was impressed," she said. "I mean, a lot of people say Ed can't talk and he's not very good at various things, but I say give him a chance."
Lilian Strange, a "lifelong" Labour member, said she felt the People's Question Time Events were a good idea, but hadn't really changed her opinion of Miliband. "He's not a glamorous leader," she admitted, "but he's an educated and sensible man who I felt really cared about peoples' questions today. But, then again, I once said that about Tony Blair."
The Labour leader has pledged to have "4 million conversations" with voters before the general election, and plans to take his People's Question Time roadshow to lots of target Labour seats.
There may have been no awkward questions, gaffes, or slip-ups in Stevenage, but if Labour is to win votes rather than just preserve them, Ed Miliband is going to have to open up the conversation before May.
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at email@example.com.
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