(Bloomberg) — Opposition leader Ed Miliband pledged to limit the role of private companies in Britain’s state-funded health service as he began his Labour Party’s official campaign for the May 7 general election.
A day after a snap poll indicated he lost the first major television event of the campaign to Prime Minister David Cameron, Miliband appeared with other senior Labour figures for a speech at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.
As well as extra funding for the National Heath Service, he vowed to impose a 5 percent profit cap on private companies providing services to it, stop them “cherry picking” simple treatments and end their contracts if they fail to deliver high-quality care.
“With a Labour government there will be a new double lock to protect our National Health Service,” Miliband said Friday. “Guaranteeing proper funding and stopping its privatization.”
Miliband is putting the NHS at the center of Labour’s bid to regain power after five years of Cameron’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, trying to break the deadlock in an election campaign that’s seen Labour and the Tories swap the lead in the polls without establishing a decisive advantage. On current polling, neither would win a majority of seats in Parliament on May 7 and both would have to rely on smaller parties to form a government.
“The fight starts here,” Miliband said. “This is going to be a fight right across the country and it is a fight where we have to strain every sinew and give every fiber of our being.”
The Labour leader, who was introduced to the podium by an NHS nurse, Agnes Brown, pledged to fund the health service with 2.5 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) more a year than the Tories by taxing the most expensive homes, tackling tax avoidance by hedge funds and placing a levy on tobacco companies. He said he would repeal a Conservative law that’s led to an increase in NHS contracts going to private companies.
“Privatization cannot meet the needs of 21st-century health care,” Miliband said. “Privatization of the NHS is no longer simply out of step with our principles, it is out of step with the needs of the time. If the task of health care in the future is integrating services, bringing them together, the last thing we need is to fragment and privatize.”
Private contracts valued at more than 500,000 pounds would be subject to a 5 percent profit limit, with firms expected to reimburse the NHS for any returns above the cap, he said.
He also pledged to introduce a more “cost-reflecting tariff system” to prevent private companies rejecting patients with more expensive needs so they can generate bigger returns. Firms failing to provide top-notch care would be told to improve and replaced if necessary, he said.
The venue for the speech was the Orbit, a steel sculpture that doubles as a viewing platform next to the Olympic Stadium, evoking the positive atmosphere that swept London when the capital hosted the games in 2012. Miliband said he planned to put the “spirit of optimism” of the games at the heart of his party’s campaign.
The Olympic Park was “the place where all of the U.K., England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, came together and showed the world what we can do,” Miliband said. “That incredible summer was our country at its best.”
The once derelict, now regenerated district is an area that votes solidly for Miliband’s party. Labour took 63 percent of the vote in the constituency, West Ham, in 2010, compared with 15 percent for the Tories. It’s bordered on all sides by Labour-held seats.
The Labour leader repeated five promises he unveiled in a pledge card earlier this month. He vowed to cut the budget deficit every year, “balancing the books as soon as possible,” boost living standards by freezing energy bills and provide free child care.
He also pledged to hire more nurses and doctors, prevent immigrants from claiming state benefits for two years after arriving and cut maximum university tuition fees to 6,000 pounds a year from 9,000 pounds.
A ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper late Thursday found 54 percent of respondents saying Cameron outperformed Miliband in the separate televised interviews and audience question-and-answer sessions on Sky and Channel 4.
Amid consistently low personal approval ratings, Miliband sought to persuade voters he’s able to make the difficult decisions a prime minister would need to take.
“Am I tough enough? Hell yes, I’m tough enough,” Miliband said. “You need a toughness. People have thrown a lot at me over 4 1/2 years. But I’m a pretty resilient guy, and I’ve been underestimated at every turn.”
ICM polled 1,123 adults who watched the program. Those who did chose also Cameron as best prime minister over Miliband by 48 percent to 40 percent. That’s a better margin for Miliband than usual, because Cameron usually outpolls the opposition leader by two to one on that question.
This election is the tightest for a generation, Miliband said Friday. “Like so many races here at the Olympics, it may come down to the wire, neck and neck.”
—With assistance from Thomas Penny and Robert Hutton in London.