Gordon Brown promises 'better and fairer Britain'
Gordon Brown launched Labour's manifesto for the 6 May General Election today, promising to lead the country on "the road to a better and fairer Britain for all".
The Prime Minister set out a package which includes few new spending commitments but offers a shake-up of public services to give patients and parents a greater voice and allow the takeover of failing schools, hospitals and even police forces.
Unveiling a 76-page manifesto with a distinctly Blairite tinge, Mr Brown said a fourth term for Labour would create a Britain with "a bigger middle-class than ever before". Labour was now the "party of middle-income and lower-income Britain", he said.
Labour's pledge to halve Britain's record deficit within four years was confirmed, alongside promises to create one million skilled jobs, increase the minimum wage, guarantee cancer tests within a week and hold referendums on voting reform for Westminster and a democratic Upper House.
Dismissing the "empty slogans about change" from Tory leader David Cameron, Mr Brown said Labour had "a realistic and radical plan for Britain that starts with securing the recovery and renews Britain as a fairer, greener, more accountable and more prosperous country for the future".
As in the past three elections, Labour promised not to increase income tax rates, but there was no such pledge on VAT, though the manifesto said the tax would not be extended to items like children's clothes and food.
Pressed over whether Labour was leaving the door open for a VAT hike if it got into financial difficulties, Mr Brown said: "Our deficit reduction plans add up without having to put up VAT. The Conservative Party plans do not add up without assuming they will put up VAT."
Shadow Cabinet member Liam Fox said: "Given that we have a broken economy, a broken society and broken politics, there was a distinct lack of ambition and imagination.
"People will look at the promises and say 'After 13 years of broken promises, why should be believe any of the promises in this one?' It's time for change."
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's chief of staff, Danny Alexander, said: "Every Labour manifesto since 1997 has been full of promises they have broken. They simply can't be trusted to do a single thing they say."
On a day when attention was focused squarely on the first manifesto launch of the election campaign, Mr Cameron visited businesses backing the Tory plan to ditch next year's National Insurance rise, while Mr Clegg promised to reform the "outrageously unfair" tax regime in favour of the poor by raising income tax thresholds to £10,000.
Flanked by his Cabinet and wife Sarah in the gleaming surroundings of the newly-built Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, Mr Brown acknowledged that Labour was in "the fight of our lives" to secure a fourth term in office.
But he defiantly rejected Opposition claims that, after 13 years in power, the Government has run out of steam.
Declaring himself "proud" of Labour's achievements under Tony Blair, he said: "In 1997, New Labour asked the country for the opportunity to renew Britain - our hospitals, our schools, our towns and cities.
"Now, in a changed time, New Labour is once again ready and equipped to answer the call of the future."
The policies in today's manifesto were "rooted in the day-to-day concerns of the British people" and showed the party would be "restless and relentless reformers" in building the future, he said.
Campaign chief Lord Mandelson said the manifesto pledges were fully costed, and accused Mr Cameron of running a "bribe-a-day" campaign for a "Santa Claus economy".
The Business Secretary described Labour's agenda as "Blair plus".
And at its heart were Blairite promises to create 1,000 "accredited" schools by allowing successful leadership teams to help or merge with poorly-performing institutions; to make every NHS hospital a Foundation Trust, with those already holding the status able to take over those which are not "up to the mark"; and to require police Chief Constables to replace top officers in units under their command which do not get results.
In exceptional cases, the Home Secretary would be empowered to require failing police forces to merge with more effective neighbours.
Mr Brown promised continued state support for the economy, warning that Conservative plans to find an additional £12 billion in efficiency savings this year would risk tipping Britain into a double-dip recession.
Labour will invest in national infrastructure, with broadband for all and high-speed rail links, and will create a £4 billion UK Finance for Growth fund and a Green Investment Bank to deliver funding for low-carbon technologies, he said.
Describing the 2010 poll as the first "post-crisis election", he won warm applause from activists by saying he wanted "a Britain where banks serve the people and not the other way around, and banks pay their fair share to society through an international banking tax". The Northern Rock bank, rescued with taxpayers' money, could return to building society status through mutualisation, he said.
In the wake of controversy over the sale of Cadbury to US food giant Kraft, Labour promised changes to corporate law to require a two-thirds "super-majority" of shareholders to approve takeovers.
Families were offered a "Father's Month" extension to paternity leave, a new £4-a-week Toddler Tax Credit for parents of young children and an expansion of free nursery places for two-year-olds.
Victims of anti-social behaviour will be given a right to legal injunctions, funded by the police or councils who have let them down, as well as guaranteed 24-hour response to complaints.
And Labour promised to take the first steps towards a National Care Service, though the party initially committed itself only to free care in the home for those with greatest needs and a cap on residential care costs after two years.
Environmentalists were given promises to make greener living easier through help with home insulation and to move towards a "zero-waste Britain" by banning recyclable and biodegradable waste from landfill.
And campaigners for constitutional reform were offered legislation on fixed-term Parliaments to strip the Prime Minister of his power to set the election date, as well as the prospect of votes at 16 and an all-party commission on a written constitution.
Mr Brown insisted Labour was "ready and equipped to answer the call of the future".
"The road to recovery that we have been travelling is also the road to a better and fairer Britain for all," he said.
"Leave it to our opponents to try to build the present in the image of the past.
"The manifesto is written not in the past tense. It is written in the future tense because even in the darkest days of the crisis we never stopped thinking and planning for tomorrow."