Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

'Apartheid' claims set to make debate interesting

Ed Balls has been dogged by nagging questions for his party's annual gathering in Manchester. Not over his bold pledge of an affordable housing splurge, or his rivalry with Ed Miliband.

Instead, it is an issue that goes to the heart of trust in our politicians: did the Shadow Chancellor dive to win a penalty in the annual lobby hacks versus MPs football match?

Even an anonymous teammate admitted the striker "went down like a shed collapsing" in the parliamentarians' 3-0 win.

Rebuilding Britain, not collapsing sheds, is this week's theme. Does anyone remember 'Fulfilling the Promise of Britain'? That was last year's. They tend not to live long in the memory.

Mr Balls will be hoping attention now shifts from his fall in the box to his keynote speech on the economy yesterday.

Labour have upset the trade unions with their support for curbs on public sector pay, but yesterday Mr Balls was adamant that any move by George Osborne towards regional pay for public servants would herald "a race to the bottom".

And the bottom is precisely where Northern Ireland's civil service wages would end up, unions fear, because of the perceived gap with the private sector.

Ed Miliband will today return to the issue of youth unemployment, pledging yet another new qualification, called the Tech Bacc, for kids who do not want to go to university, while a whole wad of cash would be handed to businesses for them to develop apprenticeship schemes.

One of the trials of being in Opposition is that not much notice gets taken of your policy announcements. But one of the benefits is that you don't need to provide much detail.

Doubts about the leader still remain, but the key messages of tackling youth unemployment and boosting the housing market have been well-rehearsed.

Mr Miliband has been open about the party's perceived failings - I saw him admit to Labour "losing its marbles" last time it was in Opposition.

This year's conference is a scaled-down affair, but it still lasts longer than the other parties', dragging on until Thursday morning. That is when Northern Ireland spokesman Vernon Coaker takes to the stage - following a savage attack by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, which accused the national party of "political apartheid" in failing to field candidates in the province.

The Northern Ireland debate takes place this evening and it will be interesting to see if Mr Coaker and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham - both down to speak - show up after the rumpus caused by the invitation.

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