A theme of the National Policy Forum was Labour’s commitment to devolving power from Whitehall to local authorities, with the publication of plans to let local transport authorities seize control of rail and bus franchising.
Mr Miliband insisted he believed in devolution, and criticised the Government for appearing to tell cities they could only gain more autonomy if they chose to have directly-elected mayors. “The government said that if you become a place with a mayor then you can have extra powers.
“I say that if it’s good enough for a place with a mayor then its good enough for every part of the country.
“If you believe in devolving power, if people decide not to have a mayoral system – I actually supported a mayoral system in my own area of Doncaster – but if people vote not to have one, to then say ‘we’re not going to give you the powers’ is crazy. You either believe in devolution or you don’t.”
Birmingham is currently in negotiations with ministers about a proposed “city deal” giving the city more cash and powers to run its own affairs, but the government has previously warned that cities are more likely to be awarded powers if they have strong and accountable leadership such as a mayor. Mr Miliband said Labour would also focus on working with local councils more than Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – the partnerships between councils and business leaders set up by the present government – because they were accountable to voters.
He said: “We’ll obviously want to support the LEPs and make them work properly.
“But I think local authorities – look, why are people so cynical about politics? There’s a whole range of reasons but part of it is that they think, there’s something that really affects my life, over which my local authority, the person I vote for, my local councillor makes no difference.
“So when I vote, I’m thinking well, actually, is it going to make a difference? I think local authorities are places where devolution needs to make place.”
This included defending the role of councils in running schools, in contrast to the Government’s efforts to push schools into becoming academies, independent of council control.
Teachers at 13 Birmingham primary schools were balloted over strike action following union claims that Education Secretary Michael Gove was “bullying” schools into becoming academies, although unions later withdrew the strike threat.
Mr Miliband said: “The problem is that Michael Gove is an incredibly centralising education secretary.
“That’s not the image he likes to portray. But the reality is that the idea you can have thousands of academies all run from the centre, which is what he’s proposing, without a local authority role, just doesn’t make sense.
“And so he portrays himself as a localiser but the reality is he’s a centraliser.
“Also there are issues around special needs and exclusions where local authorities do need a role.”
There have been reports, firmly denied by the government, that Ministers are going cold on plans for High Speed Two or HS2, the high speed rail network linking Birmingham, London, Leeds and Manchester.
The Department for Transport insists that the high speed line will be built – and Mr Miliband said the same held true if he became Prime Minister.
“I have always been a supporter of high speed rail.
“I think it is very, very important for the country. It is part of modernising Britain’s infrastructure. Lots of other countries have the kind of high speed rail that HS2 is about.”
Mr Miliband has been a supporter of Black Country MP Tom Watson (Lab West Bromwich East) and his work to expose phone hacking and other unethical practices in parts of the media.
But the Leveson Inquiry set up by David Cameron to look into the issues this raised has come under fire from some politicians. Michael Gove claimed the inquiry was creating a “chilling atmosphere” towards freedom of expression.
Mr Miliband disagreed, and insisted politicians of all parties had a duty to support Lord Justice Leveson’s work.
“Freedom of the press is incredibly important and we’ve got to do everything to protect the freedom of the press, but I also think we’ve got to support Lord Justice Leveson, having set him up on a cross party basis.
“I think you saw from the Prime Minister’s evidence, that he tends to concur with my view that we should be supporting Lord Justice Leveson in what he’s doing.
“We set him a task, myself, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, in a cross party agreement that this inquiry was necessary. And I think we should support him in his work.”
Finally, Mr Miliband spoke of his decision to sack Birmingham MP Liam Byrne from his role as head of Labour’s policy review. Mr Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) kept his job as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary in the Labour shadow cabinet.
“He will be playing his role as the spokesperson on welfare issues. But the reality is, and Liam and I both recognise this, that you needed somebody full time on the policy review in this phase.
“For the first phase it was possible to have somebody combining both jobs, of welfare and the policy review, but as we move into the more intense phase of this it wasn’t fair on anybody to think that they could do both jobs at once – even somebody of Liam’s ability.”