Sketch: Deflating the Labour conference big tent

"Yes, you sir, with the six-foot walking stick"
"Yes, you sir, with the six-foot walking stick"
Alex Stevenson By

Ed Miliband got a bit mixed up today, standing behind a lectern for a format which traditionally involves him removing his jacket, rolling his sleeves and pacing around the stage like a caged animal.

Not today. The Labour leader stood behind his lectern, like this was an elaborate press conference. The question and answer session felt a lot like that. Only the questioners were even more desperate to get called.

Their enthusiasm for this knows no bounds. You don't stand a chance with Miliband if you rely on a bit of waving to get his attention. So a trend is now developing where delegates wave more and more preposterous objects to get called. I spotted scarves, a six-foot-long stick, an umbrella, a large red flag, a Wales flag. Other creations were so complex they defied description. You could stick them in the Tate Modern and they wouldn't look out of place.

Miliband himself was in a good mood, basking in the warm glow of the energy companies' rage. He used his opening remarks to underline his determination to bash them.


But it was his reinforcement of the other great theme of his speech - that he's a great leader, dammit, whatever David Cameron might say - which proved unexpected.

Backroom negotiations are currently underway with the broadcasters about the next general election's TV debates. Labour want three, the Tories would much rather just have one. Today Miliband went public, calling for TV debates "just like at the last election, so the country can make its choice".

Then came the questions - for Miliband always a pleasure, never a chore.

One woman congratulated her leader for having committed to repealing the 'bedroom tax' - and then said she had another 49 housing policies he wanted Labour to commit to.

Another wasn't happy at Labour's persistent use of the phrase 'working people'. She felt that this "quite exclusive" language was "dangerous" and "not going to win a general election". Surprisingly, that one got a big round of applause; the union members must have nipped out for a ciggie.

A third woman, who joined the party in 1327 or thereabouts, turned out to be an Andy Burnham loyalist.

She was worried about the shadow health secretary's job security and wanted Miliband to publicly confirm he would continue to keep Burnham in the shadow Cabinet.

The Labour leader dodged that one, saying limply "I thought Andy put it very well".

Apart from successfully identifying a Phoenix Suns shirt - which only gave the questioner the chance to expose Miliband's ignorance of Larry Bird - that was about it.

The Q and A, which had in previous years been allowed to run on and on, was cut short by Harriet Harman's closing speech - a traditionally light-hearted affair made even lighter this year by her invitation to Godfrey Bloom to hoover behind her fridge.

All that was left was a solo rendition of the Red Flag that seemed horribly reminiscent of an X Factor audition. And that was it: the Labour conference over for another year.

"It was a bit flat," one delegate who's been coming since the mid-1990s told me on the way out. She wasn't just talking about the closing performance of the Red Flag, either.

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