New British Labour party leader talks out of both sides of his mouth

Union power yes and no. Budget cuts yes and no -- etc.

Ed Miliband attempted to shake off his ‘Red Ed’ nickname yesterday – insisting he would not back ‘waves of irresponsible strikes’ or oppose every spending cut proposed by the coalition. He sought to put some distance between himself and the union barons who enabled him to inflict a stunning defeat on his elder brother David.

Mr Miliband wanted to portray Labour as the ‘optimists’ who could change the face of Britain. But he immediately prompted confusion over his position on public finances, saying the ‘starting point’ was the last Labour government’s plan to halve the deficit – but then opposing a list of coalition cuts.

He suggested the deficit should be tackled more slowly than Labour had previously proposed to avoid damaging the economic recovery. He added that it was ‘not responsible, it’s irresponsible’ for the Government to call a halt to school building projects or to deny Sheffield Forgemasters an £80million taxpayer-funded loan.

The new Labour leader insisted he was ‘serious’ about reducing debt, and admitted the party would have been making cuts if it was still in power. ‘There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. 'Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government,’ he told the conference.

Despite his attempts to shake off the ‘union puppet’ jibes, Mr Miliband’s debut conference speech was shot through with left-wing rhetoric. The new leader said he would back the unions’ key demand to improve rights of temporary and agency workers. He also backed union calls for a so-called ‘living wage’ of £7.60 an hour, which would effectively raise the minimum wage by 30 per cent.

He hit out at executive pay, suggesting that it should be capped, and also suggested there should be limits to Britain’s flexible labour market rules, which unions claim allow employers to exploit staff.

But as he delivered his message on strikes, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, joint general secretaries of the giant Unite union, sat grim-faced. Mr Simpson was caught on camera mouthing the word ‘rubbish’.

Mr Miliband said he would not support a return to 1970s-style industrial chaos threatened by some unions. He said: ‘I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes. The public won’t support them, I won’t support them. And you shouldn’t support them either.’

But he left the door open to supporting individual strikes, and union leaders later appeared to be relaxed about his rhetoric.

Mr Miliband also lavished generous praise on the union movement for its work – leading the Tories to warn last night that it was still unclear whether Mr Miliband would stand up to his union backers or ‘pander’ to them.

The coalition’s plans to slash the number of prisoners won support from Mr Miliband, who ignored warnings from senior Labour figures about going soft on crime. He said he would not oppose Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s contentious cuts to short sentences.

Only hours before, Alan Johnson, the shadow Home Secretary who backed David Miliband for the leadership, had given a coded warning to Ed Miliband not to turn his back on tackling crime. But a defiant Mr Miliband said Labour should become the party of civil liberties again – despite its support for draconian DNA databases and ID cards.


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