Labour leader raises concerns over spending cuts, migrant labour and nuclear power - but steers clear of policy announcements

The construction industry delivered a wait-and-see verdict on Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference, in which he signalled support for public construction spend and a possible clampdown on the use of migrant labour.

In his speech, which was warmly received by delegates despite most having voted for his brother David, Miliband said the coalition government was endangering the recovery by cutting spending too quickly.

He tried to throw off the “Red Ed” mantle and position himself in the centre of British politics, but also raised touchstone left-wing issues such as labour rights and the Iraq war.

Although he made no definite policy commitments, he said he planned to tackle the issue of firms bringing in migrant workers to undercut UK wages. He said: “We have to challenge the old thinking that flexible labour markets are always the answer. Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour to undercut wages.”

Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour in order to undercut wages

Ed Miliband

The issue is a crucial one for unions, who have staged a number of strikes on major sites, including oil refineries at Lindsey and Grangemouth last year, over the employment of foreign direct labour. Despite Gordon Brown promising “British jobs for British workers”, the previous Labour government said it was bound by European treaties to allow the free movement of labour in the EU. Total, the operator of the Lindsey oil refinery, said the two-week strike last January cost it €100m (£86m).

Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI, said: “Companies will worry about some of the issues he raised - for example, the living wage, agency workers and the bank levy. But he was careful not to get into detail, so there will be time for debate.”

Alan Ritchie, the general secretary of Ucatt, said: “Ed Miliband’s criticism of flexible labour markets demonstrates he is determined to reshape the workplace to make it fairer and to stamp out exploitation.”

Miliband also said: “We must be on the side of people trying to protect their high street from looking like every other high street, not the people who say that’s just the forces of progress.”

This has led some to believe he is planning to clamp down on retail developments, at the same time that the EU and the London assembly are considering whether it is possible to force big retailers to make space for smaller shops.

Patrick Clift, public affairs manager for the British Property Federation, said: “Some of the best shopping environments have a mix of independent and big stores. If he’s talking about promoting areas people want to go to, then we’d support that - but not at the cost of the ability for developers to expand according to shoppers’ wishes.”

Miliband criticised the axing of Building Schools for the Future. He said: “When you cancel thousands of schools, it’s bad for building firms at a time when their order books are empty.”
He also attacked the cancellation of a £80m loan to steel firm Sheffield Forgemasters, which was to pay for elements of nuclear reactors.