A newspaper asked the five candidates to identify a book they might recommend to a friend:
Yesterday, all five of the Labour candidates were asked, in a newspaper questionnaire, what book they would recommend to a friend “for pure pleasure”. Ed Balls, to his credit, said Middlemarch. Andy Burnham nominated Tony Harrison’s collected poems. Diane Abbott drew attention to Robert A Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. All solid, individual, believable choices.The Gruffalo, of course, is a children's story in which a cunning mouse frightens off a variety of predators. And now we can look forward to being 'led' by an idiot who thinks nominating The Gruffalo as a serious reading choice is likely to make himself more appealing. If you distilled the essence of Tony Blair into its purest form, you couldn't get a worse answer than that. It's a wretched answer, a clumsy attempt to appear likable and down to earth.
On the other hand, Ed Miliband tied himself in knots trying not to sound superior. “Anything by Henning Mankell – and get it on DVD with Kenneth Branagh (but maybe not the one in Swedish, since this is about pleasure...)” You see, if books are too hard for you after 13 years of Labour-directed education, just get the DVD, it’s exactly the same – and don’t get one with subtitles, ’cos that’s too hard too. His brother David, however, managed the difficult feat of sounding even more patronising. He nominated The Gruffalo, a work of literature intended for readers between three and five-years-old. “All you need to know to get by in life,” Mr Miliband opined.
Has it really come to this? For some years now, adult readers have become less inhibited about including juvenile works in their reading matter. When adults first started to be seen on the Tube reading the Harry Potter novels, it seemed worthy of comment. Now, we are all used to it. All the same, there are limits. If you saw an adult reading The Gruffalo in a public place, the normal reaction would surely be to edge away nervously.
Not all politicians are as enthusiastic readers as Nick Clegg, with his admirably honest keenness for Beckett, or Macmillan with his passion for Jane Austen. Mrs Thatcher once let it be known that she would be “re-reading” Frederick Forsyth on holiday. But has anyone in David Miliband’s position ever been so terrified of intimidating the public that the first book they recommend as reading for pleasure is a book written for three to five-year-olds? (1)
Perhaps David Miliband has, unintentionally, given us the metaphor for this campaign, for the candidates all share a rodent quality. I have still seen nothing from the other candidates that challenges my growing - but reluctant - conviction that Ed Balls is the best on offer. Note, 'best,' not 'good.' Surrounded by mice, the rat is king.
But my disgust at the arrogance of the parliamentary Labour Party is even stronger. Their incompetence, scheming and unspeakable uselessness, supine Blairite tendencies and feeble egotistical careerism brought us to this mess - in opposition, looking like the nasty, authoritarian party that no-one in their right mind would vote for.
The Labour Party, traditionally, has been staffed by working men who took advantage of the opportunities available to them, worked and learned hard, often at their own volition, and rose through their effort. Men like Keir Hardie, Ernst Bevin and Nye Bevan - none of whom enjoyed a formal education - would have dismissed Miliband's pat, patronizing answer with the scathing contempt it deserves.
1 - "Miliband’s choice reads like a fairy-tale," by Philip Hencher. Published in the Guardian, 28th of June, 2010. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/philip-hensher/philip-hensher-milibandrsquos-choice-reads-like-a-fairytale-2012090.html)