The U-turn minister admits to having second thoughts

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Indy Politics

The rarity of a Labour cabinet minister frankly confessing a change of heart initially stunned the audience on BBC1's Question Time into silence. But as Mr Miliband himself ruefully acknowledges, "The woman that spoke after me said, 'There's another slippery politician' and everyone clapped!"

Finding new ways of "speaking plainly" is of a piece with the message he says he will be "revving" in Brighton this week: the need for Labour to start handing power back to individuals.

Mr Miliband says he detects a widespread "sense of powerlessness" abroad - it is a "new enemy out there". And unless Labour starts to address it directly voters could turn back to a Tory message that individual empowerment means smaller government.

Tony Blair has defended the introduction of choice in public services in familiar terms - that a better educated, more consumer-orientated electorate expects more than simply to be told what school or hospital they will attend.

The trouble, as Mr Miliband himself admits, is that previous attempts to engage citizens and devolve power have tended to increase rather than reduce voters' scepticism.

"This is not just about more consultation," he says. "The power has got to be real." He insists that public services are already being shaped by those who use them.

Voters and ministers need to be clearer about the difference between devolution and decentralisation, he says. The first allows voters to choose the "what and the how" - the other just the "how". Education, for example, should only be decentralised since no responsible government would surrender responsibility for ensuring children get a basic schooling.