UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband pitches to voters, vows to learn lessons of recession

By David Stringer, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

UK Labour chief Ed Miliband lays out comeback plan

LONDON — Britain’s Ed Miliband made a debut address Tuesday as head of the opposition Labour Party, promising to draw lessons from a humbling election defeat, sweep away divisions caused by the Iraq war and offer hope amid the country’s painful round of austerity measures.

The 40-year-old Miliband, who narrowly defeated his older and better-known brother David in a leadership election Saturday, has pledged to overhaul the center-left party’s pro-business, Washington-friendly platform and to strike a humbler tone than predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In a forthright speech aimed chiefly at lifting himself from the political shadows, Miliband took a bold stand against the Iraq war, chided Israel over its stance on Gaza and offered an emotional account of his Polish-Jewish parents’ escape from the perils of Nazi Europe to freedom in Britain.

Miliband, whose brother watched from the hall but is yet to decide whether he’ll join his sibling’s team, promised to lead a new generation of Labour legislators to power — but said they must show humility over the mistakes that led to their ouster from power in May.

“We need to learn some painful truths about where we went wrong and how we lost touch,” Miliband told activists. “We must not blame the electorate for ending up with a government we don’t like — we should blame ourselves.”

Miliband won applause for airing his personal doubts about the 2003 invasion of Iraq and for pledging a more critical tone in dealings with the United States.

“We were wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that,” Miliband said. He insisted he supported the mission in Afghanistan, but said it must not be “a war without end.”

“Our alliance with America is incredibly important to us, but we must always remember that our values must shape the alliances that we form and any military action that we take,” Miliband said, referring to Blair’s close ties to President George W. Bush’s White House.

The new leader also pledged to support a two-state solution in the Middle East and said he would “strain every sinew” to persuade Israel to lift the naval blockade of Gaza.

Though he served in Brown’s Cabinet as energy and climate change secretary — winning some worldwide recognition during climate negotiations — Miliband is little known outside British political circles.

Miliband, who is unmarried but has a young son and is expecting a second child with his partner Justine, strode to the stage with her by his side. He showed off his relaxed style and peppered his remarks with jokes — a far cry from the stiff and scripted Brown.

“The more people see that guy, the sooner he’ll be prime minister. He’s got the charisma and he’s got the heart and soul,” said Derek Simpson, the leader of the Unite union, which urged its 1.5 million members to back Miliband in the leadership contest.

In a deeply personal passage, Miliband said he had devoted his life to politics, thanks to the courage and principles of his parents. Miliband’s late father Ralph was a noted Marxist intellectual, and mother, Marion, is a leftist intellectual.

“My love for this country comes from this story. Two young people fled the darkness that had engulfed the Jews across Europe and in Britain they found the light of liberty,” Miliband said. “They arrived with nothing. This country gave them everything.”

Miliband also praised his brother David, the 45-year-old ex-foreign secretary and close ally of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He barely beat his brother to the leadership with a slim advantage of 1.3 percent in a ballot of legislators, party activists and about 3.5 million labor union members.

“It was the speech of a conviction politician. It was a nerveless speech,” the elder Miliband said of his brother’s performance after watching in the conference hall.

However, David Miliband did not applaud during his brother’s criticism of the Iraq war, and was seen asking a colleague: “You voted for it. Why are you clapping?”

The older Miliband voted to authorize the war, while the new leader was not elected to Parliament until 2005, after the war had begun.

One delegate dubbed the fallout from the tight contest between the Milibands “a geek tragedy,” playing on the nerdy image of the two brothers — both known for their intellect, and sometimes gawky demeanor.

David Miliband will announce Wednesday whether he’ll join his brother’s leadership team.

In his address, Ed Miliband echoed public anger at executive pay and bankers’ bonuses, pledging to raise the country’s minimum wage and tackle inequality.

He also vowed to grasp the delicate issue of immigration, including the impact of migrant labor in forcing down pay rates for working-class Britons. But he rejected critics who call him “Red Ed” and warn he will move his party toward the political left.

Miliband said he would challenge the speed and scale of Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity plan, which aims to clear Britain’s deficit within five years by axing government programs, cutting public sector jobs and trimming welfare payments. In his campaign, Miliband agreed to join a labor union rally to demonstrate against the cuts next month.

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