LONDON (AP) — Britain's main opposition leader wooed voters Tuesday with an alternative to austerity, vowing to reward Britons suffering a "cost-of-living crisis" in the wake of the global financial meltdown.
Labour leader Ed Miliband told his party's annual conference in the seaside resort of Brighton that if he won the 2015 election he would freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months — a pledge he used to underscore his willingness to stand up to the powerful on behalf of voters.
The pledge drew praise from Labour supporters, but criticism from energy firms.
"Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone," said Angela Knight, chief executive of Energy U.K., which represents the country's big power companies.
Labour has struggled to win back voters since the party lost power in 2010, after 13 years in office, having been in power when the global banking crisis erupted in 2008.
The 43-year-old Miliband has been painted by opponents as ineffectual, and his once-socialist party, which has shifted toward the center since the mid-1990s, is wary of appearing too left-wing.
Miliband made no pledge to reverse the current Conservative-led government's austerity measures, which have seen billions cut from public spending and thousands of jobs eliminated. Miliband said a Labour government would "stick to strict spending limits to get the deficit down."
But he promised policies to ease the pain on what he has called the "squeezed middle," from more house-building to better mental-health services and tax cus for small businesses.
Miliband accused Prime Minister David Cameron's government of failing to stand up to big corporations and other "powerful interests," and said Britain's economy had become skewed in favor of the wealthy few.
"For generations in Britain, when the economy grew, the majority got better off," he said.
"And then somewhere along the way that vital link between the growing wealth of the country and your family finances was broken. They used to say a rising tide lifted all boats. Now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts."
Speaking to party members for an hour without notes, Miliband said he had taken risks in running for the party leadership, standing up to the powerful Rupert Murdoch-owned press and defeating a motion in Parliament authorizing British military action in Syria.
He blamed government policies for Britain's sluggish recovery from its post-2008 recession. The U.K. economy is about 3.3 percent smaller than at its peak in the first three months of 2008, and many people's earnings have fallen in real terms.
"In 2015 you'll be asking: am I better off now than I was five years ago?" Miliband said. "And we already know the answer for millions of families will be no."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless