MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Labour Party leader Ed Miliband cast himself as Britain’s prime minister-in-waiting on Tuesday, eight months before an election, pledging to wring money from wealthy home owners, hedge funds and tobacco companies to fund better health care.
Miliband’s speech at an annual party conference shifted Labour further to the left of the center, where one of his predecessors, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, had anchored it.
“There is a choice of leadership at this election, a real stark choice of leadership: leadership that stands for the privileged few or leadership that fights for you and your family,” Miliband, 44, told delegates in Manchester, northern England.
In an embarrassing slip, Miliband, who delivered the speech without notes, forgot to mention what pollsters say are two of the biggest pre-election issues: Britain’s sizable public deficit and immigration. The original version of the speech showed he had intended to touch on both issues.
Barely ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in opinion polls, Miliband faces a tough task to win May’s election. Some of his own activists find him an uninspiring figure.
Labour, in power from 1997 to 2010, should enjoy a much bigger lead in opinion polls at this stage in the electoral cycle if it is to win, experts say.
Wearing a dark suit and standing in front of a giant wall banner reading, “Labour’s Plan for Britain’s Future,” Miliband spoke for more than an hour and drew several rounds of applause, earning a standing ovation at the end.
“In the next eight months, the British people face one of the biggest choices in generations. We are ready,” he said before walking through the conference hall hand in hand with his wife, Justine.
The centerpiece of Miliband’s speech was a promise to create an annual £2.5 billion ($4.09 billion) fund to improve Britain’s health service. He said the money could be used to recruit thousands more doctors and nurses.
The extra money would be raised by taxing wealthy home owners, by cracking down on tax-avoidance schemes, including those used by hedge funds, and by levying a new “fee” on tobacco manufacturers based on their market share, he said.
The reaction from party activists was mixed.
“I think it was an OK speech; I think the mood of the conference has been a bit flat,” Mark Ferguson, an editor of LabourList, a grassroots organization, told fellow activists afterwards. “I think it needed to be a brilliant speech to change that, and I’m afraid for me it probably hasn’t.”
Other supporters were more enthusiastic.
“It was very uplifting,” said Chantal Franco, a Labour party member. “For someone like me who has to go round the houses knocking on doors and talking about Labour, it gave us some very positive messages for people who want to vote Labour but who perhaps have been a bit worried about what Labour will do.”
George Osborne, the Conservative finance minister, complained Miliband had failed to address economic woes. “Ed Miliband didn’t mention the deficit once. Extraordinary. If you can’t fix the economy you can’t fund the NHS” health service, he said on Twitter.
Business groups said they were disappointed Miliband did not answer what they said were the big questions about the economy.
“It is slightly problematic that some elements of his speech are likely to be seen as short-term political expediency and could create uncertainty for business, which runs counter to the need for long-term strategic vision and investment,” John Longworth, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement.
A YouGov poll released on Tuesday put support for Labour at 35 percent against 33 percent for the Conservatives. Worryingly for Miliband, 63 percent of respondents said they did not think he would be up to the job of being prime minister.
Miliband, whom Britain’s mostly right-leaning media regularly lampoon for being socially awkward, set out a 10-year plan to transform the country in the speech, which focused on improving people’s everyday lives.
He said he backed unspecified English devolution as well as turning the upper house of parliament into a “senate.” He also said he was in favor of lowering the national voting age to 16 from 18 after teenagers were allowed to vote in last week’s Scottish independence referendum, in which Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.
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