September 23, 2014 / 2:08 PM / in 3 years

Britain's Labour leader bids to be next PM, tacks left

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, speaks at the party's annual conference in Manchester, northern England September 23, 2014.Suzanne Plunkett

MANCHESTER England (Reuters) - Opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband cast himself as Britain's prime minister-in-waiting eight months before an election, pledging to wring money from wealthy home owners, hedge funds and tobacco companies to fund better health care.

Tuesday's speech, the last Miliband will deliver at a party conference before a national election next year, shifted Labour further to the left and away from the center, where one of his predecessors, former prime minister Tony Blair, had anchored it.

"There is a choice of leadership at this election, a real stark choice of leadership; leadership that stands for the privileged few or leadership that fights for you and your family," Miliband, 44, told delegates at Labour's annual conference in Manchester, in northern England.

In an embarrassing slip, Miliband, who delivered the speech without notes, forgot to mention what pollsters say are two of the biggest pre-election issues: Britain's sizeable public deficit and immigration. The original version of the speech showed he had intended to touch on both issues.

Narrowly ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party in opinion polls, Miliband faces a tough task to win May's election. Some of his own activists complain they find him an uninspiring figure.

Labour, in power from 1997-2010, should enjoy a much bigger lead in opinion polls at this stage in the electoral cycle than one or two percentage points if it is to win, experts say.

Wearing a dark suit and standing in front of a giant wall banner reading 'Labour Plan for Britain's Future', Miliband spoke for more than an hour and drew several rounds of applause, earning a standing ovation at the end.

"In the next eight months the British people face one of the biggest choices in generations. We are ready," he said, before walking through the conference hall hand in hand with his wife Justine.

The centerpiece of Miliband's speech was a promise to create an annual 2.5 billion-pound ($4.09 billion) fund to improve Britain's health service, which he said could be used to recruit thousands more doctors and nurses.

The extra money would be raised by taxing wealthy home owners, by cracking down on tax-avoidance schemes, including those used by hedge funds, and by levying a new "fee" on tobacco manufacturers calculated on their market share, he said.

'NO IPHONE MOMENT'

The reaction from party activists was mixed.

"There was no 'and finally Steve Jobs 'I've just invented the iPhone moment'," Mark Ferguson, an editor of LabourList, a grassroots organization, told fellow activists afterwards.

"I think it was an OK speech, I think the mood of the conference has been a bit flat. I think it needed to be a brilliant speech to change that and I'm afraid for me it probably hasn't," he said.

Other supporters were more enthusiastic.

"It was very uplifting," Chantal Franco, a Labour party member, told Reuters. "For someone like me who has to go round the houses knocking on doors and talking about Labour, it gave us some very positive messages for people who want to vote Labour but who perhaps have been a bit worried about what Labour will do."

George Osborne, the Conservative finance minister, complained Miliband had failed to address economic woes.

"Ed Miliband didn't mention the deficit once. Extraordinary. If you can't fix the economy you can't fund the NHS (health service)," he said on Twitter.

Business groups said they were disappointed Miliband did not answer what they said were the big questions about the economy.

"It is slightly problematic that some elements of his speech are likely to be seen as short-term political expediency and could create uncertainty for business, which runs counter to the need for long-term strategic vision and investment," John Longworth, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement.

A YouGov poll released on Tuesday put support for Labour at 35 percent against 33 percent for the Conservatives. Worryingly for Miliband, 63 percent of respondents said they did not think he would be up to the job of being prime minister.

Miliband, whom Britain's mostly right-leaning media regularly lampoon for being socially awkward, set out a 10-year plan to transform the country in the speech, which focused on improving people's everyday lives.

He said he backed unspecified English devolution as well as turning the upper house of parliament into a "senate". He also said he was in favor of lowering the national voting age to 16 from 18 after teenagers were allowed to vote in last week's Scottish independence referendum, in which Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.

Additional reporting by William Schomberg; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Larry King

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