Ed Miliband speech preview: Young people, the NHS and a black hole of doom

Ed Miliband: A man of many pixcellated parts
Ed Miliband: A man of many pixcellated parts
Alex Stevenson By

Ed Miliband will strike a miserabilist tone in his final party conference speech before next year's general election. He will warn that young people are complaining their generation is "falling into a black hole". The Labour leader should beware. With this list of promises, he is in danger of falling in after them.

"So many people have lost faith in the future," he will say.

"I've met young people who should have the brightest of futures who tell me their generation is falling into a black hole. People in England who think all politics is rubbish. People in Scotland who wanted to leave our country because they felt they had nothing left to lose. Our task is to restore people's faith in the future. But the way to do it is not to break up our country. It is to break with the old way of doing things, break with the past."

It hints at a promise of Miliband at his best. The man who took on Rupert Murdoch, who took on the City, who took on the trade unions who handed him victory over his brother. Miliband has it within him to be radical. But taking on institutions does not win general elections.

It's always been his weakness. Connecting with the ordinary voter takes more than just uttering platitudes on a high street. And Miliband's offer to the people has always been slightly removed. He is not of the people. He has read a lot of books about them, though, and he thinks he knows what they want.

"For Labour, this election is about you. You have made the sacrifices, you have taken home lower wages year after year, you have paid higher taxes, you have seen your energy bills rise, you have seen your NHS decline, you know this country doesn't work for you. We can build that better future for you and your family, wherever you live in the United Kingdom, and this speech is about Labour's plan to do it: Labour's plan for Britain’s future."

Actually, what Miliband's speech is about is the subject that has always been his core mission: the economy. This, more than anything else, is the battleground on which the 2015 general election will be won and lost. Yet his long drawn-out wait for 2015 has seen time work against him.

The big gamble of the coalition parties when they agreed to get the hard pain of spending cuts out of the way was that, just before they really start to bite in 2016, the pain of austerity would be blunted by economic recovery. For a while, amid headlines obsessing over the double-dip recession, Britain seemed a miserable place to be. After Ed Balls became Miliband's second-choice shadow chancellor, the opposition's rhetoric concentrated on linking spending cuts with GDP.

It was an error. For, after a prolonged period of uncertainty, the economy did finally begin to rouse itself. Labour, reformulating its approach, decided to make its pitch to voters about something more than just that quarterly percentage. What mattered, it was argued, was what was going on in people's wallets - and their minds. They weren't feeling prosperous enough, it was guessed. This was the vulnerability which Labour hoped to prey on.

It's a strategy which has been half-fulfilled as we arrive, now, at the 2014 party conference season, just seven months away from the election towards which Miliband has been slowly heading for four years. Living standards remains a big part of the pitch, but they are not as central as might have been expected 12 months ago. The Labour plan is to raise national minimum wage a bit, and incentivise companies to offer the living wage via a tax rebate. Miliband will make it easier for the self-employed to get mortgages and pensions. And responsibility for lowered business rates will be handed to new 'powerhouse economic regions'. These are useful changes, but don't exactly provide a direct impact on everyday people's needs. On anyone's terms, they fall short of what is needed to win a general election.

So Miliband is hoping to win over voters with a bigger picture. He's offering a broader perspective on which to paint his vision of the future. It's not going to be about what's going on in people's pockets. It's about their longer-term economic future. For Miliband this means taking on an implausibly hard task: overcoming the intergenerational gap which is making life harder than ever young people.

The problem with this is that the shifting demographics of Britain's population have produced some unpleasant trends which are very hard to fix. The basics of supply and demand make the housing market, for example, exceptionally tricky for any one politician to master - even a wannabe prime minister. Yet housing is on Miliband's list under the bold heading 'RESTORING THE DREAM OF HOME OWNERSHIP'. In unsubtle terms, the policy detail here is 'build more homes'. This was the coalition's plan, too, and that didn't work out so well.

Young people need jobs before they can even think about saving for a house, so Miliband is going to try his best to help them get one. He is going to encourage them towards apprenticeships and away from university, mostly by opening up the public sector to apprenticeships in a way which expands on the Tory nudging of the private sector. This could be revolutionary, but it will also be top-down. Perhaps more private companies will follow suit, perhaps not.

Then comes the environment, which is critical for the unborn generations to come. Sadly they don't have a vote. But at least young people might be expected to care. Miliband's focus here is a million miles away from talking about energy bills, although we'll have to see if he mentions the price freeze that dominated last year's speech. Instead his rhetoric will be about getting the green industry going again. Miliband wants to get on with the transition to a low carbon economy as quickly as possible. It's a worthy ambition, if not necessarily a very popular one.

That just leaves the NHS. 'Saving' the health service is, in the opposition's view, about repealing the coalition's Health and Social Care Act, which - controversial and divisive as it was - is only just starting to get bedded in. More political upheaval will surely be bad news for patients in the short-term, but Miliband has committed to his course. He has allowed his shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, to push for a forthright campaign of destruction against Andrew Lansley's reforms.

"We are going to have to transform the way it [the NHS] works in the years ahead," the Labour leader is expected to declare. The results will not be pretty. So Miliband will attempt to sugar the pill by offering a guarantee of access to a GP within 48 hours and the integration of health and social care services. These changes are more ambitious than they sound - not that making promises which are hard to keep will bother Miliband much at this stage.

Because the truth is Ed Miliband is a long way from entering No 10. The latest YouGov polls give Labour a lead in the polls, but the Tories are basking in the glow of the recovering economy - where they enjoy a polling lead - and remain privately hopeful. Miliband was disappointed by his party's performance in this year's European elections and, more recently, by his party's responsibility for the failure to persuade Glasgow against independence. He appears passive and responsive to the Tories' "long-term economic plan". This is his alternative: a 'Plan for Britain's Future' which doesn't become more impressive just because it has been capitalised.

"Strip away all of the sound and fury and what people across England, Scotland and Wales, across every part of the UK, are saying is this country doesn't care about me," Miliband will say. "Politics doesn't listen. The economy doesn't work. And they are not wrong. They are right. But this Labour party has a plan to put it right."

It is a plan which has lost focus, veering away from the discontent of living standards and instead offering a two-term agenda for reform and recovery. Miliband's pitch to voters is balanced in theory, but vulnerable in practice. It may not be enough to win back the disgruntled voters who left Labour's camp in 2005 and 2010.


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