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22 September 2013

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.

By George Eaton

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. 

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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.