For the third year running, Ed Miliband delivered his speech to the Labour Party conference this week without notes. This has attracted a great deal of adverse comment, but none more odd than a claim that it was 'macho'. That was the charge laid by both Janet Street-Porter on BBC One's Question Time on Thursday and then again by David Mellor on LBC this morning. 'Very few women would do that,' sneered Mr Street-Porter.
It's difficult to know how to take this. I mean, there are many things one can say about Ed Miliband and about his tenure as Labour leader, but macho? It's not really the first adjective to spring to mind, is it?
In fact, surely one of the attributes that Miliband has going for him is the fact that he so obviously isn't macho. Because there are enough genuinely macho politicians around already and they seldom do us much good. I'm reminded of another Labour leader, Michael Foot, speaking to the conference in 1983, when he mocked David Owen's tough stance on nuclear weapons and quoted the words of Zsa Zsa Gabor: 'Macho isn't mucho.'
Mind you, it's probably not good that Miliband should prompt thoughts of Foot, particularly in 1983. That conference was held in the wake of a general election when Labour secured the support of just 27.6 per cent of the vote, or, to put it another way, just one in five of the registered electorate. That's the back-marker that Miliband has to beat if he's not going to be remembered as the most disastrous Labour leader since George Lansbury.
But anyway Street-Porter is simply wrong, as he so often is. The modern fashion for paperless speeches was established by a woman. Here's an extract from my book A Classless Society:
'Following her character assassination of Michael Howard, [Ann] Widdecombe became shadow health spokesperson and took the 1998 party conference by storm. Speaking without notes, and roaming the stage in a manner that would one day become associated with David Cameron, she earned a huge standing ovation with a speech that combined passion and humour in a way not seen since the great days of Michael Heseltine. Mocking the Labour health minister Tessa Jowell, whose picture appeared thirty-two times in an eighteen-page booklet designed to promote public health policies, Widdecombe shrugged: "Now I could understand it if she had my good looks . . ." She became the Conservative equivalent of John Prescott – the butt of media jokes, but seen by the rank and file membership as their plain-speaking representative at high table.'