29/09/2012 16:20 BST | Updated 29/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Labour Party Conference: Ed Miliband Promises Brighter Future For Young People

Ed Miliband pledged on Saturday to deliver a brighter future for young people as he kicked off Labour's conference.

Lambasting the coalition Government for having "something against" the next generation, Miliband said they were suffering high unemployment, huge housing costs, and tuition fee hikes.

Miliband: 'Whoever wins the next election will be faced with a huge deficit'

He hinted that his party could go further than its existing commitment to cut the maximum annual university fee from £9,000 to £6,000.

He also called for more focus on vocational training, and reiterated his desire to see the voting age brought down to 16.

The comments came in a question-and-answer session at the East Manchester Academy before the official opening of Labour's gathering in the city.

Although the party has been riding high in the opinion polls, the leader is under pressure to improve stubbornly poor personal ratings.

The Tories highlighted the problem this morning by releasing Populus research which found that nearly two-thirds of Labour supporters would prefer Miliband's brother David in charge.

Some 73% of those questioned agreed that Miliband did not have what it takes to be prime minister in tough economic times, and 72% that he was too weak for the job.

Miliband struck a cautious tone during the town-hall style event, repeatedly insisting that Labour would not be able to reverse all the coalition's spending cuts and unpopular measures.

"Whoever wins the next election will be faced with a huge deficit," Miliband said.

"If it is a Labour government, we will have to make difficult decisions. We will not be able to reverse all the cuts.

"We will take decisions about priorities, like putting jobs ahead of pay rises.

"But don't believe those who say that all politicians are the same, because our decisions will be different.

"We would always put the interests of millions of working people ahead of tax cuts for millionaires."

Miliband said the coalition was currently borrowing money to "keep people idle", rather than investing in generating economic growth.

"I'm not going to wave a magic wand," he said. "But I do believe we could make a difference."

He described young people's futures as his "number one priority".

'I do wonder what this Government has got against young people'

The party is due to announce it is forming a Youth Employment Taskforce, designed to help more young people find work and monitor the impact of coalition policies.

"I do wonder what this Government has got against young people," Miliband said.

"First of all we have got to get young people working again.

"Secondly... we have got to find a way to help all young people have a future, all young people have a career.

"All young people who go to university and those who don't.

"Graduate unemployment is a terrible problem, but also what is the career path of someone who doesn't go to university?"

Miliband dismissed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's tuition fees apology, pointing out that he had only said sorry for pledging not to raise fees.

And he signalled that Labour was hardening its position against the charges, with the possibility of a straightforward graduate tax on the table.

"We have said that if we were in government tomorrow we would cut the tuition fee to £6,000, the maximum tuition fee," Miliband said.

"In my view that is not enough. I think it is a start. It is what we can afford, we have shown a way of doing it and it would reduce the debts that people are going to face."

Miliband confirmed plans to replace Ofgem with an energy regulator which has tougher powers to ensure prices are fair.

He also proposed capping pension fund management fees, amid complaints that people saving for their retirement are being ripped off.

"You know what it's like when the envelope hits the doormat with the gas bill or the electricity bill," he said.

"The companies know you can't choose not to pay it. They are making us pay more than we should."

Accusing the coalition of failing to protect pensioners, Miliband said: "Millions of working people are doing the right thing and putting money aside.

"The least they expect is for it to be there for them when they retire.

"But too often people are finding there is much less in the pot than they expected.

"What's been happening is, while you were saving, the company which was supposed to be helping you, the company you trusted, has actually been taking thousands of pounds out in hidden fees and charges."

During the conference, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint is also due formally to launch Labour plans to organise mass bargaining for energy bills.

The SwitchTogether scheme has been hailed as proof that Labour can be a "positive force for change" even out of government.

The party is also creating a new "policy hub" to widen involvement. Activists and the general public will be able to post responses to party policy documents.

Meanwhile, deputy leader Harriet Harman has brought in former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips to look at the issue of discrimination against older women.

The TV celebrities - both famously dropped by the BBC - will help draw up proposals for preventing ageism and sexism and consider whether legislation is necessary.

Interviewed by The Independent, Harman said: "Of course there is age discrimination against men. But the combination of age and gender discrimination against women is of a different order of magnitude."

She launched a scathing attack on new BBC Director-General George Entwistle for his "woeful" response to criticism that the corporation freezes out older women while keeping older men on its screens.

"Basically, he said 'We have got to reach out and find these (older) women'. In fact, they are right there under his nose but they are being got rid of," she insisted. "He was saying 'We can't start chucking out the older men'.

"Miriam (O'Reilly) was told to devise her own programme and then she could be on it. He needs to wake up right away and realise that women will not tolerate that any more.

"We need action, not pitiful excuses. He is still stuck in the old mould that the older man, the experienced, wise sage, has to be matched (on screen) by the younger woman."

Miliband said the energy bill and pension charge proposals were "the opening shots in a war we need to fight to make this economy work for everyone".

'We need action, not pitiful excuses'

He said he wanted to foster the sort of spirit that helped Britain rebuild itself after the Second World War to tackle what was a "genuine economic emergency".

But he repeatedly stressed that he would have to make many difficult choices and would have to reject many calls from Labour supporters and others to reverse coalition spending.

"I'm not going to make promises I can't keep, otherwise I'd be Nick Clegg," he said - in a dig at the Deputy Prime Minister's public apology for the broken Liberal Democrat pre-election pledge not to raise student fees.

An incoming Labour administration would rather "under-promise and over-deliver", he told the audience.

The Labour leader came under fire from some parts of the audience for failing to set out a clear enough agenda for what Labour would do in power, one telling him "we have been waiting too long" and calling for a "much more dynamic" public message.

Miliband sparked some confusion over the party's position on the Government's controversial NHS reforms, forcing senior party sources to insist it remained committed to repealing the legislation.

Asked about the shake-up, Miliband declared that it would not be "sensible" to "reverse it all back and spend another £3bn on another bureaucratic top-down reorganisation".

Labour would instead find ways to "put the right principles back at the heart of the NHS", he said - seeking a legal basis for the NHS based on "co-operation, not competition".

A senior party source denied that was a signal that the party had rowed back on its commitment to tear up the Health and Social Care Act if it took power - insisting that the new commissioning structure could remain in place even if that happened.

Asked at the session if the party would scrap the reforms, Miliband said: "I think what would be not sensible is for us to come along and say 'Well, Andrew Lansley - now Jeremy Hunt - are changing all the arrangements to have these new clinical commissioning groups and so on and we are just going to reverse it all back and spend another £3bn on another top-down bureaucratic reorganisation.

"The key thing about this Bill, which we can't understand, is it actually says in the notes... we should have the same model for the NHS as we have for the privatised utilities.

"That is the wrong model for the NHS, that is the wrong values. So what Andy (Burnham) and I are working on is a different legal basis.

"We are going back, we are going forward to a legal basis for the NHS which is based on the right principles, not the wrong principles. Co-operation not competition.

"In the legislation... hospitals can be fined if they so-called collude with each other. That's not about collusion, that's about co-operation. That's what you want to happen in the NHS.

"That's what we think we have to target; they are the changes we have to make."

Amid claims that it represented a backtrack on the party's stance, a senior Labour source said: "We will repeal the Bill.

"We will return the NHS to its founding principles of co-operation and care. We will not go through any costly reorganisation."

It was possible to repeal the legislation while retaining in place the new commissioning structure, the source insisted.

Miliband also indicated that he remained open to the idea of renationalising the railways.

"I have a very open mind about this," he said.

"Let's not dogmatically say 'Well, clearly the best future is every franchise in the private sector' but let's not dogmatically say either that it's the public sector. Let's look at what's going to work, let's look at international experience."

The extra costs of the state running the railways had to be balanced against public "frustration" with private operators.

Shadow health secretary Burnham, in a post on Twitter following Miliband's comments, said: "I'll repeal the Bill. Full stop."