Miliband sets out Labour vision

ed miliband visit2 Peter Cheney reports on Labour’s policy agenda for Northern Ireland, articulated during Ed Miliband’s recent visit to Belfast.

Any reduction in corporation tax must be matched by action to tackle social inequality, Ed Miliband stated during his two-day visit to Belfast. The Labour leader and Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Ivan Lewis emphasised that a Labour Government would respect devolution but also press all parts of the UK to close the gap between rich and poor.

Miliband firstly addressed a business reception hosted at Titanic Belfast by Co-operation Ireland and Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.

Announcing Labour’s decision on corporation tax, he confirmed that the party was “certainly not going to oppose this Bill and we will help to facilitate the passage before the general election.”

One observer noted that Theresa Villiers had dared Labour to resist the change and the party, while still sceptical, had responded to lobbying from the local business community.

His statement fell short of full support but disappointed local party members, many of whom are trade unionists and opposed to a lower rate. They are also continuing to call for Labour to contest elections in Northern Ireland – a move resisted by the party leadership as it wants to be seen as an honest broker.

Inequality was the “central challenge” facing the UK as a whole: “Our society works for some people but not for all.” The answer lay in the hands of the private sector by creating good jobs with decent wages.

Miliband stated: “I’m not promising there’ll be lots of money to spend if there’s a Labour Government – because there won’t be – but what I am promising you is a sense of direction about how our whole country needs to change and the challenges we face.” He looked forward to the Heenan-Anderson Commission’s recommendations on how a Labour Government could best support Northern Ireland.

Next morning, he spoke at a seminar hosted by the commission at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus. Northern Ireland was “a byword for terrorism and conflict” when he was growing up in the 1980s and the “incredible transformation” took place because people on the ground made it happen. His parents were wartime refugees from Belgium and Poland and he learnt from them that “if you see an injustice in your society, you shouldn’t just get angry about it, you should do something about it.”

Northern Ireland was “at the sharp end” of inequality as the region with the UK’s highest economic inactivity rate and highest proportion of people earning below the living wage, and a fall of £1,683 in average wages since 2010. In light of the UK’s financial position, the problem had to be tackled by creating good quality private sector jobs and having “a race to the top for high skills and high wages not a race to the bottom”.

A Labour Government would raise the minimum wage, abolish zero hours contracts, value vocational and academic qualifications equally, and prioritise the creative sector in its industrial strategy. He reiterated his call for a banking system that properly supports SMEs and his intention to cut the deficit through economic growth, a fairer tax system, and “common sense” reductions in public spending.

ed miliband visit1 “We need to remain a country that is open to the world and engaged in Europe,” Miliband continued. A British exit from the EU would be “particularly” bad for Northern Ireland due to its land border with the Republic.

“We’re fighting this election on a recovery that is real and reaches all the kitchen tables of people across the United Kingdom,” he remarked, “and a recovery which not just crosses the Irish Sea but reaches all families in Northern Ireland.”

Peace and prosperity

Miliband also saw economic change and the political process as indivisible. “If we keep the peace process on track, we will be able to secure economic and social progress and the alternative is true too,” he commented. “We need to make economic and social progress if we are to keep the peace process on track because nothing would breed resentment and potential division more than actually a failure to improve the living circumstances and the living standards of people in Northern Ireland.”

Answering the audience’s questions, Miliband said that a clear progression route was needed in vocational education and backed the concepts of social clauses and technical universities. He also wanted to see parity in how mental health was viewed across the UK: “Whether it’s stigma or treatment or the attitude of employers or, dare I say so, the recognition of this in schools and colleges, we are just miles, miles behind.”

Ivan Lewis is a close ally of Miliband and one of the major thinkers behind the One Labour brand.

“Profit is not a dirty word,” he stated. “Without wealth creation, we cannot do the kind of social justice things we want [to do] in our society but we should never be asked, in the context of business success, to choose between profit and ethics.”

Lewis recalled his work with people with learning disabilities and poor mental health before entering politics. Families whom he met kept asking: “Why is it we have to fight the system all the time rather than have the system on our side?”

Inequality was therefore about power as well as income. Emerging themes from the Heenan-Anderson Commission’s work included the importance attached to community planning, the struggle for people to find “long-term stability and certainty,” and the impact of spending cuts on early intervention and prevention. There was also an increasing need to offer people personalised serviced, improve school standards, and match up education with employers’ needs.

“At the moment, too many of the jobs are low paid and too many people are under-employed,” Lewis added. From his own experience as a Minister, he found that young people have “massive aspirations” but the main problem was that low expectations from communities and families “became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.” A healthy, vibrant society would support young entrepreneurs and also draw on the potential of all young people who were currently outside education, employment or training.

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