Labour leader promises 20,000 more nurses, while Tories seize on forgotten section of speech made without notes
Ed Miliband has played what he hopes will be his trump card in the general election by promising 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs in a £2.5bn-a-year move to make the state of the National Health Service the central issue for voters.
In a keynote speech to the Labour conference in Manchester that won few plaudits for its delivery, Miliband delighted party activists by saying an annual “Time to Care” fund would tackle delays in GP appointments, and rescue overstretched hospital A&E departments.
Speaking without notes and saying he was at the start of a eight-month job interview ahead of May’s election, the Labour leader focused remorselessly on health and the crisis in living standards, including a six-point plan to improve Britain over the next 10 years.
Two of the three standing ovations in the speech came when he promised to save the NHS, and put it at the heart of the election. He told delegates: “The NHS is sliding backwards under this government.
“They are privatising and fragmenting it. Just think what it would be like after five more years of this government. It is not safe in their hands. We built the NHS, we saved the NHS, we will repeal the Health and Social Care Act, and we will transform the NHS for the future.”
However, Miliband avoided saying anything on schools, crime, multiculturalism or welfare. It later emerged he had also forgotten a passage in which he would have said the Labour government would get the deficit down, an omission that was seized on by the Tories as a sign that Miliband was not serious about constraining public spending.
Speaking less than a week after Scotland’s hard-fought independence campaign, Miliband made only a limited reference to constitutional questions. He referred to Labour’s need to address the question of whether non-English MPs should be allowed to vote on English matters, but said this had to be part of a wider engagement and not a Westminster stitch-up.
There was also some mockery on social media as tweeters focused on Miliband’s repeated use of anecdotes involving personal conversations he had with ordinary voters, and in particular his double reference to Gareth, a software developer, who turned out to work for a London based IT firm and is a former Lib Dem supporter considering switching to Labour.
In the centrepiece of his speech Miliband said he would fund the extra NHS spending by raising £1.2bn from a new mansion tax on properties valued at more than £2m, £1.1bn from tax avoidance measures – including stopping hedge funds avoiding hundreds of millions in tax on shares – and £150m by annually charging “fees” on tobacco firms so that they make a larger contribution towards tackling tobacco-related illnesses.
The fees, similar to those introduced by Barack Obama in 2009, are to be based on the firm’s market share. The news drove down the share price of some UK-based tobacco firms, whose trade body the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association argued the industry already contributes £12.3bn a year to the exchequer, while the costs of smoking to the NHS are estimated at between £2.7bn and £5.2bn.
Miliband said: “We will raise £1bn from tax avoidance, including by closing the loopholes for the hedge funds. We will use the proceeds from a tax on houses worth over £2m and we will raise revenue from the tobacco companies who make soaring profits on the back of ill health.”
He added: “The NHS is currently creaking. One in four people wait a week or more for a GP appointment. We have seen the scandal of care visits restricted to just 15 minutes for the elderly. It is time to care about the NHS so that doctors, nurses, care workers, midwives are able to spend proper time with us – and not to be rushed off their feet.”
However, the Tories said the plan to raise £2.5bn contained an £850m black hole since two of Labour’s loophole measures would raise no revenue. Labour claims that ending the so-called “Quoted Eurobond Exemption” – which is designed to make UK companies more attractive to foreign lenders – will raise £500m. The Tories say this is contradicted by an official Treasury analysis that found such restrictions would “be difficult to frame, generate market uncertainty on London’s Eurobond market, and could be structured around, so providing negligible Exchequer yield”. The Tories added that the government was already acting on a second loophole identified by Labour.
But the Tories were most delighted by the mistake in which Miliband missed out a key section of his speech on the deficit and immigration, one that was briefed to some reporters the night before. His aides said he had simply forgotten the passages as he struggled to memorise a speech that lasted 65 minutes. They denied he had left it out for fear of offending party activists or disagreed with its contents.
The passage was striking since he had been expected to say: “There won’t be money to spend after the next election. Britain will be spending £75bn on the interest on our debt alone. That’s more than the entire budget for our schools.”
He was also due to say: “Labour’s plan is based on a tough new approach. Eliminating the deficit as soon as possible in the next parliament. Getting the national debt falling. And no proposals for additional borrowing. We will get the deficit down.”
He also missed a relatively mild passage on migrants that read: “Immigration benefits our country but those who come here have a responsibility to learn English and earn their way.”
Miliband used the speech to announce that a Labour government would give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote. “It’s time to give the voice to young people,” he declared, before appealing to youngsters struggling to get on the housing ladder by pledging to double the number of first time buyers.
He said the last few months had shown the “compassionate” David Cameron had been found out, and the prime minister had simply left working people to fend on their own. He said people have lost their faith in the future arguing “the deck is stacked, the game is rigged in favour of those that already have power”.
He managed just a few paragraphs on the Middle East crisis and the threat posed to Britain by Islamic State (Isis) saying he supported the overnight action taken by the US in Syria against the Islamist extremist group, adding that he favoured a UN Security Council resolution to win the international support to counter the threat of Isis.