Ed Miliband shoulders burden of leadership at Labour Party Conference

LABOUR leader Ed Miliband promised consumer-friendly policies but no extra spending yesterday, as he used the opening day of his party’s annual conference to counter Tory claims he is not up to the job of Prime Minister.

Miliband said that, if elected, he would cap the charges and fees of pension firms and force energy suppliers to pass on price cuts in an effort to ease household costs for families and the elderly.

However, echoing shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, he told a public meeting in Manchester that an incoming Labour government in 2015 would not promise to reverse cuts made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, saying “hard decisions” on spending would have to be made.

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In a Q&A session afterwards, he admitted he would have to “disappoint” people who were looking for pledges on funding, including from one member of the audience calling for more support for Citizens’ Advice Bureaux.

His opening speech to the conference came as the Conservatives released details of a Populus poll which found nearly two-thirds of Labour supporters would prefer Miliband’s brother David as leader.

Some 73 per cent of those questioned agreed that Ed Miliband did not have what it takes to be prime minister in tough economic times, and 72 per cent thought that he was too weak for the job. Labour hit back by claiming that the Tories were “desperate”.

In a lengthy session with local people, Ed Miliband also hinted his party could go further than its existing commitment to cut the maximum annual university fee from £9,000 to £6,000 for students in England.

He also reiterated his wish to see the voting age reduced to 16, a move that comes as UK and Scottish ministers continue negotiating over whether to allow 16 and 17 year olds to take part in the forthcoming independence referendum.

Miliband said he wanted to focus on easing economic hardship for families. He proposed a more powerful energy watchdog to ensure fairer prices, so that firms would be forced to cut their own prices to the level of the cheapest competitor.

And, he said, Labour would impose a strict cap on pension firms’ charges and fees so that working people can save for retirement with confidence.

The Labour Party conference slogan is “Rebuilding Britain”, with Miliband stressing that Britain is facing “a genuine economic emergency”.

Labour figures said Miliband would not use his keynote conference speech this week to set out detailed policies, with more than three years to go until the next general election. They hope instead that Miliband will, alone of the three main UK leaders, be able to use his speech to “address the country” about his philosophy to take Britain forward.

With Miliband trailing his own party in popularity, Labour chiefs are hoping he can use the conference platform to begin to win over sceptics.

Yesterday, he said: “There is a crisis of living standards that is profound, prolonged and painful. This is an economic emergency as we are at risk of a decade-long decline in living standards. For millions of families, the prospects feel bleaker now than for decades. And we will need the same spirit to overcome this crisis as Britain has showed in our gravest ­moments through history.”

But he warned: “The next Labour government will face very difficult economic times. It will face a deficit that is still there. We’ll have hard decisions to make… There will be cuts that have been made by this government... and I’ll say to you today that I can’t promise to reverse them because unless I know I have the money I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep.”

However, referring to the Tory commissioned Populus poll, a Conservative spokesman said: “This shows that Ed Miliband has got serious questions over his leadership. He has got a lot of work to do with the British people to persuade them that he is ready to be prime minister.”