LABOUR leader Ed Miliband has pledged to scrap the House of Lords and create a new senate of the UK nations and regions, as he used the final party conference before the general election to place constitutional reform at the heart of his campaign.
The leader of the opposition also promised to extend the vote to all 16- and 17-year-olds, which was widely regarded as a success in Scotland’s independence referendum last week.
Mr Miliband said a future Labour government would pay for 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 more care workers and 3,000 more midwives within five years of taking office.
To cheers from party members, he said the £2.5 billion NHS boost would be funded by a tax raid on tobacco companies, closing tax loopholes for the rich and imposing a new mansion tax on properties worth £2 million or more.
While the health pledge only directly affects England, it means more money would be available for the Scottish Government to spend on public services, due to the way funds are distributed under the Barnett formula.
Opponents criticised his plans. Conservative chairman Grant Shapps claimed Mr Miliband would only deliver “more borrowing and more taxes”.
Mr Miliband outlined a ten-year plan – two terms in office at Westminster – to transform the UK and stop “a generation plunging into a black hole”.
He said the fact that 45 per cent of voters in Scotland had backed independence showed the UK “was not in good health”.
In what was billed as the biggest speech of his political career, he appeared to return to traditional Labour values when he appealed to a sense of “solidarity” created by the No campaign’s referendum victory.
He said Prime Minister David Cameron was trying to turn the four nations against each other, with his post-referendum plan to ensure only English MPs would vote for English laws.
He claimed the Tories are the party of “you’re on your own” while Labour is the “party of together and solidarity”.
He told the conference that he now has “an eight-month job interview with British voters”, with a huge package of constitutional reform including abolishing the Lords. He told party delegates: “People think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives. And as somebody who stands at Prime Minister’s Questions each Wednesday, I often know what they mean.”
He insisted that faith needed to be restored in politics.
To applause, he said: “First of all, it is time to hear the voice of young people in our politics; so we will give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in general elections.”
He added: “It is time we complete the unfinished business of reform of the House of Lords so we truly have a senate of the nations and regions.”
He said he would keep the promise to Scottish voters to devolve more powers to Holyrood.
But in a furious attack on the Prime Minister’s call for English votes for English laws, Mr Miliband said the Tories were trying to turn the nations against one another. He said: “If David Cameron cares so much about the Union, why is he seeking to divide us? He is learning the wrong lessons from Scotland.”
And he accused Mr Cameron of pandering to Ukip south of the Border. “David Cameron doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom. He lies awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom Independence Party – Ukip.”
Mr Miliband also laid out a series of goals the party would aim to achieve by the end of a second term: doubling the number of first-time home buyers to 400,000 a year; boosting apprenticeship take-up until it matches the numbers going to university; halving the number of low-paid workers; and creating a million new “green” technology jobs.
“Can anyone build a better future for the working people of Britain? That is the general election question,” he said.
But opponents dismissed his speech. Mr Shapps said: “All Ed Miliband offers is more wasteful spending, more borrowing and more taxes.”
Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron said: “The country needs a bold roadmap for the future and all we got was a wayward ramble around a north London park.”
There was a guarded response from business. John Cridland, the CBI director-general, said: “There’s no doubt that Ed Miliband has ambition for Britain but we heard very little about how to create economic growth to deliver these ambitions.”
The speech was praised by unions, critical of Labour’s decision to restrict public spending.
David Maddox: Miliband’s keynote conference speech fails to make faithful feel in the least way Happy
The music summed up the Labour Party conference. They played Pharrell Williams’s Happy before Ed Miliband got on the stage. They played Happy after he left the stage. But they never played Happy while he was on the stage.
This was, after all, meant to be a big uplifting moment, getting the party membership ready for the fight over the next eight months to win the general election in May 2015. But the pall of gloom over this conference in Manchester just would not go away.
So in the biggest speech of his political career so far, Mr Miliband was framed by rows of dour, miserable faces on stage. His jokes were met with hushed pauses and not a flicker of a smile crossed the faces of the chosen ones meant to represent the hard-working people of Britain behind him.
It said something that the loudest cheer he got was when he decided to bash a newspaper – albeit the Daily Mail – and the members did get the bit about oligarchs playing tennis with Prime Minister David Cameron.
“It’s no joke,” he said after telling everybody that a woman at his local pub thought “politics is rubbish”.
He needn’t have said it because nobody was laughing. (They were all probably trying to envisage Ed asking for a pint at his local.)
However, one thing you can’t accuse Miliband of is ever forgetting meeting a member of the public. There was Josephine in Scotland, the cleaner who could not decide how to vote in the referendum. There was Zeeamara, who had worked her way up to become a chef. Then there was Elizabeth the apprentice, paraded to show that Labour can attract ordinary folk to come along.
But most of all there was Gareth, who is high up at a software company and has a five-year-old daughter but can’t afford a mortgage.
But it wasn’t just Gareth. Miliband said: “I met his colleagues as well. And that software company, the thing that shines through about it for me, is it is full of bright, savvy young people, full of great enthusiasm.”
In fact, Miliband couldn’t leave poor Gareth alone, later saying: “We need route map for people like Gareth.”
At the end of it all, the party faithful unenthusiastically applauded Miliband – and probably Gareth, too. Outside, it began to rain…