Miliband turns his fire on Cameron as debate over inequality gets personal

When Labour's leader targeted big business in his conference speech he was criticised. But he has stuck to his guns – and now accuses the PM of protecting society's richest 1 per cent. Interview by Andrew Grice

Six weeks after a Labour conference speech that Ed Miliband admits had "mixed reviews", he has reason to believe that the debate he sparked is moving his way. His attack on irresponsible, fast-buck capitalism and his distinction between "predators and producers" sparked accusations that he is anti-business and left some within Labour perplexed. "An essay, not a speech" is how one Shadow Cabinet member described it.

But after anti-capitalist protests in hundreds of cities around the world, including the one outside St Paul's Cathedral, and figures showing that the pay of directors of FTSE 100 companies rose by 49 per cent last year, some critics concede the Labour leader had a point.

"What I was saying was that the problems in our society go beyond any one argument or one policy," Mr Miliband told The Independent. "It is about something deeper we need to address – the values of our economy and society, the way the rules are written."

He detects "a big, healthy change in the public mood", adding: "The interesting thing about St Paul's is that it reflects the feelings of millions of people that the economy and the country are not working for them."

Writing in The Observer yesterday, Mr Miliband said the Occupy London and other protests are "danger signals" that only "the most reckless will ignore." He goes further in today's interview, making the growing concern about the way Britain is run the new dividing line between him and David Cameron – and painting the Prime Minister as defender of the interests of the top 1 per cent.

He said: "David Cameron really is doing a terrific job of looking after the vested interests, the privileged, the powerful and the wealthiest one per cent. It's the other 99 per cent who feel desperately let down.

"David Cameron doesn't get it," he added. "It is not in his DNA. It is not what drives him in his politics. Working for a more responsible, fairer capitalism is not what gets him up in the morning. Even he would be hard pressed to claim it was his raison d'etre."

Mr Miliband does not do self-doubt. He insists he was "pretty unfazed" by the sniping, felt "very confident" about his argument and "would not change anything about it".

Some Labour MPs believe it was a bad speech because he had to spend the next few days explaining what he meant. Mr Miliband prefers another maxim: a Budget that grabs good headlines on day one often bombs later.

Why doesn't he visit the St Paul's camp to emphasise his common ground with the protesters? "I am not a man for gimmicks and stunts. I am interested in dialogue, but let's not do it with a photo-opportunity." Surely, many of the St Paul's protesters would regard Labour as part of the problem rather than the solution?

"There are always those who stand outside the system. Some say mainstream politics cannot solve these problems, we need something else. I don't believe that," Mr Miliband replies. Is "capitalism in crisis" as the banners outside St Paul's say? "I think a particular form of capitalism is facing a real crisis. I don't think the answer is to abolish capitalism. My dad [the Marxist historian Ralph Miliband] probably would have believed that."

In his own sights are what he calls a "short-term, take-what-you-can, in-it-for-yourself " capitalism and the divide it creates between the top 1 per cent and the other 99 per cent.

"Inequality has often been seen as a marginal issue for the last 20 years but is now centre stage. Now it is not just between rich and poor but the richest and everybody else," he says.

"Some of those in the top 1 per cent display the wrong values and that percolates through to the rest of society. The unfair way rewards are handed out is partly why the middle is being squeezed. Lots of business leaders do the right thing – and are pretty fed up with those who give them a bad name."

Executive pay cannot be based simply on what the market can bear.

"If we all went around behaving in line with 'this is what is in my power to do', that does not make for a trusting, functioning, cohesive society." A first class seat on a London to Preston train is perhaps not the best place for Mr Miliband to champion the 99 per cent.

In fact, he and his three aides had standard class tickets and the Glasgow-bound train was jam-packed by the time they boarded; the only space left was in first class so they upgraded.

The journey is not without pitfalls. As he leaves the train, Mr Miliband is pursued by some lads apparently en route to a stag party, one dressed as a woman. They try to grab pictures of him next to Mr Miliband but the Labour leader makes a skillful getaway from one photo-op he most definitely didn't want.

He is on safer, well-prepared ground at his first stop in Lancashire, at one of the model firms his conference speech might have been about: Daisy Group, a business communications firm in Nelson. Matt Riley, the chief executive, founded it 10 years ago and now employs 1,500 people. As Mr Miliband walks around its call centre, cheers break out. His aides look delighted, but it turns out the applause is not for him, but for a successful sale clinched.

The Labour leader is relaxed as he answers questions from staff, local businessmen and residents in the firm's canteen for 50 minutes. It's not all plain sailing: some questioners did not back Labour last year, a reminder that he has much work to do in an area with several key marginal seats.

"I didn't vote; I don't know who to trust," one woman told him.

Mr Miliband agrees that lack of trust is "the biggest issue in politics".

"The best answer is to under-promise and over-deliver," he says. Why is Labour not trusted on the economy as doubts grow about the pace of the spending cuts?

"We lost an election. We got some things wrong on bank regulation... It takes time for people to see the Government's approach is not working. Our job is to show people there is an alternative. Obviously, it takes time."

Mr Miliband, a pro-European, is cautious about forming a tactical alliance with Tory Eurosceptics which could – on paper – threaten the Government's Commons majority. "We have to separate off the issue of the euro from the wider issue of Britain's relationship with Europe," he says. In a departure from Tony Blair's approach, he argues: "I don't think the way to make a better case for Europe and allay peoples' doubts is to shout louder about being a better European, but to address some of the concerns people have."

One cloud on Labour's horizon is the strikes over public sector pension cuts due on November 30. Mr Miliband, the man in the middle, may soon have to take sides. "It is not too late. The Government has the primary responsibility to engage. The unions have got to look seriously at the [new] offer that has been made and must give ground too," he says.

His mood is upbeat, perhaps because he senses that a year of hard spadework is finally paying off. He believes the three issues he has highlighted – the "squeezed middle"; the next generation being worse off than today's and the need for responsibility at the top and bottom –have fused into the current unease about the system.

The hostile reaction to that conference speech has reinforced his desire to ignore day-to-day media reports.

"If I had spent my time reading the coverage, we would have taken a pessimistic view. You have to keep that out of your mind," he says. "You have to play your own game, talk about the things that matter to you and let things take their course."

The Camerons: what are they worth?

The Prime Minister is from a long line of Eton-educated bankers who built up considerable family wealth. His father, Ian, died earlier this year and left more than £3m in his will – £300,000 of which went to Cameron. His take-home pay is £142,500, in addition to the various perks associated with being Prime Minister, such as the grace-and-favour flat in Downing Street. He also owns a house in Kensington worth more than £1.5m, in addition to a large farmhouse in his Oxfordshire constituency worth around £1m.

Samantha Cameron is wealthy in her own right. The daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, she split her childhood between her family's two estates: Normanby Hall in Lincolnshire and Sutton Park in Yorkshire. She previously worked for Smythsons, the luxury stationers, and was given £300,000 in 2005 following a management buy-out.

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