It's 3.27pm on a weekday afternoon in South Shields, and the scene is looking eerily similar. At the town's gargantuan Asda supermarket, the foreign secretary has agreed to perform what he has decided to call a "mobile surgery", and is sitting expectantly at a table, with only a selection of chocolate bars (bananas have been pre-emptively passed up) and a cup of coffee for company.Oh, dear.
At least twice, notice of his presence is served via the store's PA system, but nobody appears. The 10 minutes before 3.40pm pass so slowly that time itself seems to have been suspended.
"People might not want to sit down," offers an Asda person.In other words, stop what you are doing for the company that pays your wages and obey my whim, peasant!
Miliband turns to the staff member apparently cast in the Artie Fufkin role. "I'm trusting you, Christine, to round up some business for me."
But it’s to no avail:
But none arrives, and at 3.40pm he bails out. Christine fails to request Fufkin-esque punishment ("He'll be OK," she tells me, "he's a nice fella") and Miliband departs. "The mobile surgery," he says, "is maybe something we'll have to work on for the next parliament."He thinks he’ll form that next parliament then?
Certainly he does. Because that’s the way it’s always been in South Shields:
South Shields is as solid a Labour seat as they come: Miliband has been the MP since he arrived as a New Labour greenhorn in time for the 2001 election, and last time got 60% of the vote.In some areas of the country, it’s postulated that they will vote for a pig if you slap the right colour rosette on it. It seems that’s not wrong…
He tells me he's just come from a meeting with the chief executive of South Tyneside council about £1bn of public investment that's coming into these parts in the next five years. "That's money that's pledged and programmed," he boasts.That’s different, you see…
As seems to happen every day on this tour, I cannot help but hit him with Alistair Darling's talk of worse cuts than Mrs Thatcher's – whereupon he's off.
"It's from a completely different base – around this constituency, £25m's been spent on schools alone," he says, before, it seems, giving me a guarantee about the fate of public sector projects that have yet to be started. "What's been programmed," he assures me, "will be followed through."Eh..? Even the Guardian staffer can’t quite square that one.
There is but one hint of darkness: "This is a different decade. There's going to be less money spent than in the last decade." Which is bad news, isn't it, particularly for a place like this? "Well, no – because we're going to protect and maintain services here."
Such is the bizarre magic being promised in this election – and heard from both the big parties – that, to use Labour's figures as an example, you can cut £20bn annually from NHS budgets and still "protect and maintain" all the important bits.But you see, it doesn’t matter what he says, or what he promises – he’ll get in anyway.
At the end of this exchange, Miliband cracks a triumphal smile, and lightly whacks me in the chest – the kind of behaviour presumably learned from his time in the Downing Street bunker with that renowned super-ape Alastair Campbell and his faux-blokey disciple Tony Blair.Perhaps he should have tried that on Christine. It might have prompted her to wonder if he really was a ‘nice fella’…
Back at Asda, I'm obliged to ask Miliband one very obvious question. In an alternative universe somewhere way beyond South Tyneside, Gordon Brown has been disposed of, and Miliband's leading Labour into the election. Does he ever think about that?Heh!
"No." He lets out a mirthless laugh, before making a Freudian slip. "This is a leadership election with a strong leader, and a strong team around him," he says. He means "general election", obviously.
And can his side win?You wouldn’t think so, would you?
"I think we can win … in the end, it's a democratic experiment. Can you persuade people in the next four weeks that we're the right people to trust the future of the country to?"
But in South Shields, it seems you really can fool all of the people all of the time. Oh, they won’t turn up to listen to you, or ask you questions. But they’ll vote for you, simply because they always have done.
And that’s all you need….