When Ed Miliband arrived in a chilly, snowy Birmingham for Labour’s “people’s policy forum”, I asked him if we were going to see any new policies.
“Oh yes,” he replied. But when he delivered his speech, the policies sounded rather familiar and he ducked the difficult policy questions, like public sector pay.
Labour would reverse the “millionaires’ tax cut”, he said, reintroduce a 10p tax rate, paid for by a “mansion tax” on houses worth over £2m, make a temporary cut in VAT and reform energy markets to get a better deal for consumers.
We were told the audience of 1,000 at the ICC included representatives of businesses and charities, not Labour activists but drawn from a full range of political opinion across the West Midlands. Well, up to a point.
Most of the questions during the Q&A, however, were pretty friendly. Many appeared to be asked by people working in the public sector and many were about the National Health Service.
They weren’t all easy ones, however. Early on, a stroppy middle aged man launched into a rant about “Tony Blair’s mistakes”. Then a teenage boy called on the Labour leader to bring back grammar schools.
No, he was told.
Then Mr Miliband was asked if Labour would re-nationalise the gas and electricity companies. A Labour government wouldn’t be able to afford it, the questioner was told.
But the toughest question on economic policy was sidestepped. A psychiatric nurse asked if Labour would reverse the extension until 2016 of the 1% cap on public sector pay rises announced by George Osborne in the Budget.
Mr Miliband gave a long-winded answer which ended with him saying he and shadow chancellor Ed Balls would decide nearer the time.
Later, when I challenged shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna on Mr Miliband’s response during a Sky News interview, he said: “If you ask most people where they are going on holiday in 2015 they have no idea.” Fair point, Chuka. I don’t even know where I’m going on my hols this year!
Even though this was supposed to be a “people’s” event, it was packed with Labour MPs and shadow Cabinet members. “It’s not a rally,” said Mr Umunna, repeating exactly what Birmingham Selly Oak MP Stephen McCabe had said in an interview earlier. That was obviously the “line to take” for Labour MPs.
But the Q&A wasn’t that different from the kind party leaders take part in at more traditional party conferences. I know Mr Miliband likes doing them, because he has told me. And, to be, fair, he’s pretty good at them. They’re probably his strength.
He promised more events like this and I’m sure there will be. Firm promises on party policy will clearly have to wait, however.
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