THE man who aims to be the next Prime Minister strode into the “battleground” of Swindon at the weekend.
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addressed more than 200 invited members of the public to a meeting at New College, where he took questions for more than an hour on everything from tuition fees to benefits cheats and Nick Clegg.
Speaking afterwards to the Adver, he said he aims to retake Swindon in the next general election, and regain seats in the upcoming council elections on May 5.
He said: “This is a very, very important battleground area, not just for the local elections but for the general election.
“I thought Anne Snelgrove (the Labour MP who was voted out last year) was a fantastic colleague in the House of Commons, and I’m very sorry we don’t have her there fighting for the people of Swindon. I want us to win back Swindon at the next general election.”
Asked why Swindon, as a traditional manufacturing town, had no Labour MPs and an overwhelmingly Tory council, he said: “Over time we did lose trust with people.
“Undoubtedly governments, when you become unpopular as we did, you do lose councillors. That’s very sad. But I think there’s now an opportunity to win back ground.”
Introducing Mr Miliband, Swindon’s Labour leader Derique Montaut said the audience was made up of Labour party members and “floating voters we have targeted for this occasion”.
The first question came from a Unite union organiser at the Honda plant, who called on Mr Miliband to reverse anti-trade union laws which make it harder to strike and easier to de-recognise unions at plants like his.
But despite gaining the Labour leadership thanks to trade union backing, Mr Miliband said: “I don’t think we can just wholesale repeal the anti-trade union laws, as they are called. I don’t think it would be the right thing to do.”
He was also asked about tuition fees, and questioned about the welfare state.
But on almost every issue, he was careful not to make any promises about what he would do in power.
And the final audience question he faced was: “How much more abuse do you think Nick Clegg can take before he cracks?”
He said: “I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for him.
“We’ve got to remember the lesson of Clegg and Cameron. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. There’s nothing that increases cynicism about politics more than that.”
He also spoke briefly about the News of the World phone hacking story making the headlines throughout the week.
Afterwards not everyone was convinced by his performance.
Richard Leach, 50, from Pioneer Road, Oakhurst and a lifelong Labour Party supporter, had questioned him about the fairness of moving more people off sickness benefits.
He said: “I’m a full-time carer for my partner. My job is 24 hours a day looking after her. While we firmly believe in rooting out people who take the mick, there are ways and means of doing it.
“I’m more to the left of it than he is.
“I did vote for him in the leadership competition. I’m still undecided with regards to his leadership. I support him, but I’m not wholly convinced.”
The visit came almost exactly one year after a previous visit to the town – while Climate Change Secretary, when publican John Doyle harangued him over lack of support for small businesses.
It also comes only two months after Prime Minister David Cameron hosted a similar event at the town’s Honda plant.