By Jack Jevons
Labour leader Ed Miliband began his shift from leader of the opposition to his dreams of future Prime Minister with a visit to Warrington on Friday with promises to the town’s people.
Soon after what had been acclaimed an “impressive” party conference, in which Labour reaffirmed its supporting policies for the most vulnerable in society, the leader toured the North West promoting the party promise of freezing gas and electricity prices as energy firms continue to increase tariffs despite reporting huge profits. Miliband’s visit to Warrington was certainly made high profile by his arrival; a media scrum dashed any hopes of a quiet entrance yet the party leader certainly ensured the voters were at the heart of his campaign.
The little over an hour Mr Miliband spent in the town’s Stockton Heath Morrisons store certainly made convincing reading for any political analyst. Concerned, sympathetic and humorous are some of the traits I identified in my first meeting with the politician. Noting the importance of Warrington in party politics, in-particular the Warrington South seat, Miliband began with pledges to abolish the controversial bedroom tax if his party is elected at the 2015 general election. Describing it as a “hateful tax”, so called ‘hedge cuts’ will be removed to fund for the abolition. The concern I see at present is that the abolishing of the tax seems like Labour’s one shot wonder; it takes pride of place in their manifesto and the leader’s emphasis on the decision makes it seem like there is little else to offer the ordinary voter. The abolishing of a divisive tax will impress many of those in Warrington who are ‘feeling the pinch’ as the cost of living keeps on rising, but there was little confirmation on how the party aims to crack down on those who actively cheat the benefit and taxation system.
From one controversy to another, I tackled Ed Miliband on the HS2 project which will introduce high speed rail between London, Manchester and Leeds. I questioned what many believe is a waste of government spending, worth the best part of £50bn, and whether more of that fund should be spent on existing overcrowded networks and improving the quality of services. Mr Miliband told me he “was in support of introducing high speed rail to this country” yet added “more investment” was needed for the current infrastructure, paving the way for more trains in and around Warrington, as well as more projects including electrification of more lines across the region. For Warrington, the building of the Omega business site has begun and promises to be a leading European hub. Yet it seems incredibly bewildering that the UK’s proposed high speed network will not serve the town. A “review” of HS2 has been promised by the Labour party which could see benefits to the growth of our local economy or the scrapping of the highly controversial project.
Economic growth is on all party manifestos and certainly both the Conservatives and Labour have helped many of Warrington’s unemployed get into or back into work. The Warrington South seat is a marginal and vital swing seat for the outcome of an election. I have been told by Labour Party sources that parliamentary candidate Nick Bent “will” win the seat. Mr Miliband’s visit to the town certainly won’t be the last and it certainly won’t be the end of high profile government figures visiting the town. But what about his pledges to the issues that have concerned Warrington residents?
High on the agenda of those who were at the meeting was social care. Many acknowledged that under the current coalition and previous Labour governments there had not been enough support and recognition for social workers who are on the frontline of protecting vulnerable residents of the town. Mr Miliband pledged that his party would “raise the status of the profession” and that there would be confident “defending” of the role of social workers. However, with even the Department of Health admitting it cannot afford a 1% pay rise for NHS staff in England, the future for all departments and local governments in raising the profile of such frontline work seems bleak.
Keeping children safe is key for any government and in his promises the leader said more must be done to allow parents to work and look after their children. The current 15 hours of free childcare will increase to 25, making it “better for parents” said Miliband. He questioned how any parent can look after children and work. Explaining that the levy on banks will increase, the party leader ensured that those who can afford to pay higher levy’s will. For those children already in education, Ed Miliband was confronted by a large group of young people from a mixture of Warrington’s Further Education and Sixth Form colleges. When told how students feel “stressed” at the thought of ‘end of year exams’, the leader turned to the crowd in a simple yet important show of hands. 100% of those at the event agreed that modular exams and coursework will benefit students and the leader certainly agreed, confirming he “would look to change” the decision made by Education Secretary Michael Gove whom Mr Miliband had described as a man believing “education is for a few people not everybody”. Miliband also added that politics needed to be added to the curriculum in a bid to engage more young people with local government how decisions made in Westminster affect everybody.
On the topic of employment, the ‘zero hour’ contracts in some work places were described as “wrong” by the Labour leader, before launching a rather child-like impression to declare that hosts Morrisons were “good employers”. Certainly true yet it felt rather cheesy and desperate from a man faring well in opinion polls. More would be done to ensure regular hours meant a regular contract for thousands of employees. When questioned as to how he would improve the so called “demoralising” experience of job centres, Ed Miliband began by suggesting that the Conservatives lead people to believe that those on the “dole” and in job centres are “scroungers”; he confirmed that under a Labour government, these people would have “support not criticism” when looking for jobs. A comment that was welcomed by the Labour grown crowd.
Many of the policies that Mr Miliband talks about are in touch with Warrington. The vast majority of those students and adults alike who attended gave rapturous applause to promises of raising the stigma of mental health and ensuring each individual family are given tax breaks. For me, as an aspiring journalist, his character was certainly warm and genuine; that was the feeling amongst many I spoke to after the event. Back in 2010 when he was first elected, much of the media was critical toward his stance and appeal, yet from beneath the shadows has grown a man who looks, acts and feels like a Prime Minister in waiting.
Certainly the visit of the Labour leader was exciting for an ordinary Friday morning. Recent weeks have seen Ed Miliband roll from beneath the carpet and into the front of political debate. The Labour party conference was a success by any means and the row between the leader and The Daily Mail took any hope of interest the Prime Minister had wished for away from his party meeting. The way in which Miliband has attacked the media has shown the growth from a timid character to a powerful opposition to David Cameron. His visit to Warrington was engaging and full of promises. Although, he was one of the first to pledge his support to the Warrington Wolves in their final over the weekend, Mr Miliband will be hoping his dreams of success do not go in the same sour direction.
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