East meets Westminster: Miliband takes his battle for Number 10 to the streets

Ed Miliband on the train to Cambridge during the launch of Labour local election campaign with Richa

Ed Miliband on the train to Cambridge during the launch of Labour local election campaign with Richard Porritt - Credit: Archant

IT was East meets Westminster that first revealed the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death to Labour leader Ed Miliband, writes Richard Porritt

The man who claims he is “ready” for 10 Downing Street was being interviewed for this column when the news of the former prime minister’s demise broke.

His initial reaction was a look of shock and a quiet “Oh …”. It was at this point that his press advisors drew an iron curtain around him and any access to the man who might well be the next prime minister ended.

Instead they worked frantically trying to make sure Mr Miliband struck the right tone. Paying respects to Baroness Thatcher is not an easy task for a Labour leader – even after she is dead. It was vital in the moments after the news broke that no-one made a wrong move or said the wrong thing.

To be fair to Mr Miliband he has in the past praised the Iron Lady for creating an “era of aspiration” in the 1980s.

And when he spoke on Monday – even if the response had been planned and penned en masse – his performance was spot on.

Mr Miliband was in town to kick off his local election campaign – yet even in death Baroness Thatcher was still derailing the old foes’ plans.

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Timing wise this could not have been worse for Labour, instead of news bulletins crammed with Mr Miliband attacking the Tory-led coalition it would be wall-to-wall, union flag waving Thatcherism for days.

As it stands with a funeral not until next week the campaigning for the elections will be hugely disrupted.

But Mr Miliband deserves to be heard. In the two and a half years since he took the reins of Labour he has guided a damaged brand back from the brink. In the days after the 2010 election few would have predicted the more awkward, junior Miliband would be the party chief never mind leading the polls so commandingly as well.

He has already gone some of the way to repaying those who trusted his vision for Labour and barring disaster he will be a serious challenger to grab power.

It is shame then that he chose a seemingly half-baked policy to launch his election campaign on – chasing payday lenders from the high street.

There is no doubt that Britain’s town centres are suffering but is this not a case of the free market shifting? And is targeting betting shops, pawnbrokers and lending firms really a vote-winner? Mr Miliband thinks so and he chose Ipswich to drive his point home.

“I am not going to run down Ipswich,” he said. “It is a great place. What struck me was that lots of people came from other places to Ipswich to shop.

“But at the same time two ladies I spoke to on the high street said there were too many shops that were the same. And that is exactly what our policy is about. I mentioned payday lenders and betting shops and they agreed.

“They said ‘why don’t the council do something about it?’ but so often it can’t actually do anything about it because often it does not have the power.

“The problem here is if a bank closes it is very easy for a payday lender to open up. They have the same planning class for usage – most people would think a bank is a bank but a payday lender or a betting shop is something else again.

“If you change the use you should have to apply for planning permission.”

Is this a politician ready to hand back the high street to the people? To rein in the free market? Sadly for those people desperately campaigning to stop chains opening up in towns like Southwold and Aldeburgh, it appears not.

“It is less about coffee shops. It has to have an evidence base. I think you have to give councils power to respond to the local economy.”

Many would say the policy is admirable. But how much power are people really likely to get? It appears all that will change is a class of usage on a planning application. And, to be frank, if it was not for some of the businesses Mr Miliband is aiming his fire power at what else would be on the high streets? Are empty premises really better than pawn brokers?

Mr Miliband is far more impressive, comfortable and dangerous to the Conservatives when he is attacking them on the economy.

And if this aspect improves high streets will follow.

He said: “There are so many things we need to do – we need to build houses again and get construction workers back to work, we should have a temporary cut in VAT.

“The Government has had three years – low growth, economy flat and they are just saying let’s have more of the same medicine.”

This is where the votes are for Labour. The Tories place the blame for the economic woes firmly at Labour’s door but that is too simplistic. The argument now has to be about whether David Cameron and George Osborne’s unwavering Plan A is the best way out of this mess.

“We risk a lost decade if the cuts continue,” Mr Miliband said. “If we had gone through some sacrifice and things were getting better people would say ‘OK’ but things are getting worse. The Coalition is saying there will be years and years more of this.

“What we have to do is show people there is hope.”

East meets Westminster asked: “Are you the hope?”

“I think I am. I think we offer hope to people and it is not false hope. People are fed up with politicians making promises they then do not keep. I always say to people when they ask a difficult question: ‘I am not going to promise that because you are used to politicians promising things in opposition and then not delivering’.”

But if he does reduce Mr Cameron to just one term there will be equally tough decisions to make. And no Government, not even Labour, can go backwards when it comes to welfare.

“There are 160,000 people who have been unemployed for more than two years in this country and 77,000 younger people unemployed for more than a year,” he said.

“We are the only party saying ‘Let’s get those people back to work’.

“The coalition is doing nothing about it – in fact those numbers are going up. The reality is you have two choices – let’s try to divide the country and set one set of people against the other or you can say the way we proceed is everybody has to play their part but don’t divide the country.

“The Coalition is trying to blame what is happening in the economy on a few people in society. I am not going to do that, but lets make work pay.

“Don’t cut tax credits and then cut tax for millionaires which is what this Government is doing. You have tax credits to make work pay and you do something about the cost of living as well. It is about making work pay – rights and responsibilities, that is what will make a difference.

“Let’s have real responsibility but let’s be careful about knee jerk reactions that are going to penalise children as well because it is not the kids’ fault their parents are not doing the right things.

“People on benefits should be working. I said in my first conference speech – the clue is in the name, Labour. But you have to create the jobs – there are four people chasing every job in Ipswich. One of those people will get that job but three won’t. Let’s get the jobs for people to go to.”

Is he ready to be prime minister? “Yes. We have a very important message we are taking to the country.

“The first thing I would do is get our young people working again. If we mobilise every business, every charity and government did its bit as well we could to achieve that.”

He dodges talk of deals and potential coalitions in the future – Mr Miliband is focused on winning outright. He is becoming an impressive leader and Labour – who were only lukewarm towards him even when he did win the leadership battle – are beginning to believe in him. If he continues at this pace the country might do too.

ED Miliband has blamed the re-organisation of the NHS for the continuing poor performance of the East of England Ambulance Service.

The service is in disarray over missed targets for getting to patients.

But unlike some East Anglian Conservative politicians who have attacked the leadership of the service Mr Miliband believes the coalition Government is to blame.

“I am particularly worried about the ambulance problems,” he said. “The coalition did a massive top down reorganization which is going on as we speak.

“They threw everything up in the air and are waiting to see where it lands. That is incredibly dangerous and wasting a lot of money in bureaucracy.

“We are seeing wait times in A&E and ambulance times going up as a result of that, we are seeing nurses being lost in the NHS.”

But when quizzed about whether Ipswich Hospital should keep its frontline stroke services Mr Miliband was not willing to back calls for no changes to be made.

“On the services point I am not going to make the mistake David Cameron did – I am not going to promise that every service won’t change.

“But it has to be clinically led. It has to be on medical grounds not cost grounds.”

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