Emotive, enthused, but cautious: Ed Miliband plays hand close to chest before Manchester Labour conference

By John Paul Shammas

The Labour party leader arrived in Manchester to launch his party’s annual conference with some down to earth rhetoric but not overwhelming clarity ahead of his speech tomorrow.

As the audience arrived at Manchester East Academy, they were led into the school cafeteria for tea and coffee while they waited for the arrival of Ed Miliband.

However, with 20 minutes to go until Miliband’s arrival, the room calms down and collectively, attention is turned to Sky News which has been faintly occupying a wall in the corner of the cafeteria.

A report is showing that almost two-thirds of Labour supporters would rather have Ed’s brother David lead the party according to a timely Populous poll, and to add insult to injury, the same poll indicates that 73% believe Ed does not have what it takes to be Prime Minister.

The silence is quickly broken by a member of the Labour party staff, as a woman clad in Labour party ID rises from her table and riles at the television: “That poll was done by the Tories!”

A murmur of agreement follows, and the audience eventually gets back to their conversations, but that was not enough to dispel the air of uneasiness that report generated.

As the audience is led out of the cafeteria and into the assembly room where Ed is about to kick off Labour’s annual conference, there is a tangible sense of what a crucial few days this will be in Manchester for Ed Miliband’s political aspirations.

Miliband walks in to an enthusiastic applause, but before he gets right to it, he – like many politicians in the last week – has an apology to make.

“We’ve come to one of the great footballing cities in the world and we’ve scheduled this session for the same time as the Fulham v Manchester City game,” he announced.

“This is not discrimination against City supporters, but we will be finished in time for the Manchester United game.”

The audience laugh heartily, and we’re off.

“We’ve got to do politics differently in this country” Miliband said. “I understand why people are so fed up with politics, and so fed up with politicians as well – maybe people within the Labour party, but I want to change that, and that’s why I am here.

“Ask me the tough questions” he urged, and over the next 80 minutes, that’s exactly what he got.

Straight off the bat, Miliband is asked what Labour would do to curb income inequality in Britain.

“Income inequality is a problem,” Miliband said. “The old idea was, it may be something people don’t like, but it’s the way you need to run a successful economy. Turns out the opposite is true.

“Firstly, we’ve got to have fair taxation. There is a tax cut coming next April, but it’s not for you. It is for people who are millionaires in this country. They will be getting £40,000 each as a result of this tax cut – more than the average person earns in a whole year. That is just wrong.

“Secondly, the living wage. We’re going to be announcing in this conference that 12 Labour councils are already paying the living wage to their employees.”

But Miliband conceded that he couldn’t provide a ‘total answer’, serving to underline the scale of the challenge which tackling income inequality will be.

Not being able to present definitive solutions was a rather unfortunate overarching theme to the afternoon.

As a mother sounded her concerns to Ed that despite her sons first class degree, he is still living at home looking for work, Miliband sounded with urgency that ‘we need to get our young people back to work’.

In terms of laying out how he would exactly do this however, all Ed could provide was the easy mantra of ‘taxing bankers’ bonuses’.

Eventually, the subject of the renationalisation of the rail network arose, but Miliband refused to be drawn on an answer there and then, saying that he is ‘very open minded’ about the matter and will not be ‘dogmatic’ about the topic, urging that further deliberation is needed.

Miliband did however want to be extremely clear on the inevitable topic of tuition fees.

“We’ve said we will cut [tuition fees] to £6,000 and in my view that is not enough – but it is a start,” he exclaimed. “I would like to go further.”

However, in light of Nick Clegg’s apology to the electorate last week, Miliband was eager to emphasize his proposals as ‘realistic’.

“I don’t have any easy promises to make to you, I’m not Nick Clegg” he said, earning a keen laugh from the audience.

Sticking with that theme, Ed said he wants to lead ‘the first Government to under-promise and over-deliver’.

What most caused a stir in Manchester East Academy, predictably, was the consistently hot-topic of the NHS reforms.

When asked about a potential repeal of the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act, Miliband said: “I think what would be not sensible is for us to come along and say, ‘well, Andrew Lansley, now Jeremy Hunt, they’re changing all the arrangements, have these new clinical commissioning groups and so on’, and we’re just going to reverse it all back and spend another £3billion on another top-down bureaucratic organisation.”

While this caused a sense of confusion, not only in the room, but also on the Twittersphere, perhaps this moment, alongside many others in Manchester East Academy, is simply Ed playing his cards close to his chest ahead of his highly anticipated speech this coming Tuesday at the Labour conference.

As the audience filtered out, broadcast news cameras swamped attendees with a question: “Has today made you more or less likely to vote for Ed Miliband?”

Overwhelmingly, audience members said ‘yes’, however Miliband’s lack of clarity on how he would specifically deliver the ‘real change’ he feels our politics needs in so many areas left some crucial questions not fully answered.

All things considered, while Ed was confident, energetic and hugely engaging, those who attended will be hoping that this Q&A in Eastlands was a mere teaser ahead of the big speech.

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