“I don’t know who that is,” says a young man on Tottenham Court Road when I ask about Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, I say as he waits impatiently at a bus stop. “Oh - yeah, I’ll probably vote Labour,” he replies, leaping onto a bus before I can catch his name.
Announcing policies is worth little if nobody is listening. Round the corner at University College London (UCL), Miliband had just given a major speech on his plans to shake up the banking market. Labour’s biggest challenge for 2014 may be less a matter of winning the arguments than convincing the electorate that its arguments are worth listening to. It cannot be confident of winning an election on the votes of people who cannot name its leader.
The responses of passers-by to Miliband’s speech on Friday suggest he must deal with profound public grievances over broken promises, immigration and uninspiring leadership before he can win support for new ideas. Especially when the ideas are about subjects as unsexy as the bank lending market.
Charmain Stanley, a jobseeker trying to set up a juice bar, may benefit from banking reform – but thinks little of Miliband.
“Getting funding for it is an absolute nightmare. I’ve got a business proposal, I’m passionate and I’ve done my research but banks aren’t willing to fund me coming off benefits,” says Charmain, a former waitress.
“I don’t like Miliband as such, but maybe more competition would make banks help a lot of people out there like me who are trying to get ideas off the ground and get off benefits," she says. Why does she dislike Miliband? “He’s not very honest - though I tend to rank them all the same. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in politics. It’s why I don’t vote. But if they stuck to their word, I’d happily vote, and encourage other people too as well.”
Mark Toovey, a retired engineer, is not convinced Miliband’s proposal will work.
“I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference, to tell the truth. There’s quite a few banks out there anyway, and a new one, Metro,” he says, pointing to HSBC and NatWest branches along the street.
He is more impressed by the Labour leader’s cost-of-living agenda, but shares Charmaine’s deep mistrust of politicians. “Capping energy prices – that’s a good idea. But whoever’s in opposition, they’re always saying we’re going to cap and cut this or that. It’s just a ploy to get your vote, isn’t it? They don’t mean it.” Can Labour do anything to gain his support? “No. I don’t like Miliband. Labour let too many people into the country.”
Paul Belisle, a demolition worker from Newcastle, is also more concerned by immigration.
“Miliband’s just another w***, like the rest of them,” he says bitterly. “Look at the state the country’s in now. We can’t accommodate all these foreigners – I don’t mind the culture, but wages are getting lower and lower, all the time. They work for next to nothing, and it starts to affect us.” Such anger suggests Labour have some way to go in convincing the public they are sorry for past mistakes, and serious about dealing with them.
“It doesn’t interest me,” Paul says of Miliband’s new banking policy. “I don’t vote, or pay a great deal of attention.” Could anything persuade him to vote? “Well there is one thing. Throw all the foreigners out. None of the politicians have done enough.”
Students Isaac Qureshi and Lizzy Hughes think the policy is ridiculous, and the Labour leader even more so.
“People would rather Miliband sorted out the pickle the big banks are in, rather than creating more smaller banks,” says Isaac, a languages student at UCL. ”I don’t think anyone really gives a monkeys what he says, especially a speech on the fine details. He’s a bit of a laughing stock to be honest, and he’s too non-descript to hold your attention.”
Lizzy adds: “When someone mentions Cameron, it’s usually with a negative or positive opinion. But at least it’s an opinion. I actually can’t remember what Miliband looks like.”
Isaac and Lizzy look back blankly when I ask what they make of Labour’s cost-of-living agenda. Had they heard about plans to cap energy prices? Both of them shake their heads. Fewer than 500 metres away, Miliband won a standing ovation as he rounded off his speech. “We can only do better if the conversation in politics catches up with our country,” he had told the loyal Labour crowd. Better get running then, Ed.