What to expect from Miliband's conference speech

A commitment to a mass housebuilding programme and plans to reduce energy price rises will be the centrepiece of his "cost of living" address.

After spending the summer telling voters how much worse off they are under the Tories, the task for Ed Miliband this week is to outline how they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could improve them. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015.

So far, as instances of how Labour would tackle the "cost of living crisis", Miliband has pledged to repeal the bedroom tax, to guarantee childcare for all primary school children from 8am-6pm, to "strengthen" enforcement of the minimum wage (including increasing the fine for non-payment from £5,000 to £50,000) and look at increasing it in sectors such as finance, construction and computing, and to require British companies to train a new apprentice each time they hire a skilled worker from outside the EU. Crucially, these all are commitments for 2015, not merely examples of what Labour would be doing were it "in government now". On The Andrew Marr Show this morning, in a notable shift of language, Miliband spoke of how in its "first year of office", Labour would "legislate" to introduce a fairer immigration system.

The two areas which Miliband hasn't spoken on yet but which will dominate his conference speech on Tuesday are energy and housing. On the former, today's Sun on Sunday reports that he will announce plans to stop firms raising prices when their profits soar, to force suppliers to pass on reductions in wholesale costs, to automatically put four million old age pensioners on the lowest tariff and to simplify price plans for consumers, cutting bills by around £140 a year.

On the latter, as I've previously reported, a commitment to a mass housebuilding programme will be the centrepiece of the speech. Asked at a public Q&A in Brighton yesterday "how will you tackle the housing crisis?", Miliband replied: "Simple. We will start building houses again." 

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband calls the "fundamental problem" of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour's pledge to "rebuild Britain" after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war. 

The hope in Labour is that will prove the political game-changer that Miliband so badly needs.

Ed Miliband stands with Andrew Marr after appearing on his morning television show in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article