by James Maxwell
Ed Miliband’s leadership poses more problems for Scottish Labour than it will solve.
For many, the election last September of Ed Miliband as Labour leader represented the return of the party to its social democratic roots.
During the four month leadership election contest he fought against his staunchly Blarite brother David, Miliband cast himself as the candidate best equipped to re-connect with those lower-middle and working-class voters who had abandoned Labour en masse over the course of its thirteen years in government.
In his conference victory speech, Miliband indicated his intention to bring to an end the New Labour experiment, which he characterised as excessively favourable to the free-market and, as such, blind to the corrosive effects of inequality on social welfare and community cohesion.
“New Labour, a political force founded on its ability to adapt and change, lost its ability to do so. (It) became the prisoner of its own certainties”, he said. “The gap between rich and poor does matter. What does it say about the values of our society that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year?”
It is on the basis of remarks like this that Iain Gray has claimed ‘Ed gets Scotland’. Gray reckons Miliband’s leadership will breath new life into Labour’s dormant redistributive impulses and thereby boost his chances of dislodging the SNP from power at Holyrood this May.
Half of Gray’s assessment is right. Increasingly, Scottish political culture is defined by its opposition to the kind of laissez-faire economic
programme that the Tory-Liberal Coalition in London is currently pursuing. As poll after poll suggests, Scots yearn for a viable social-democratic alternative – delivered through enhanced powers for the Scottish parliament – and will readily lend their support to any party prepared to offer it.
But, despite the rhetoric, Gray is wrong to believe that Miliband has either the will or the desire to revive Labour’s social democratic tradition.
Within his first 100 days as leader Miliband has already tacked backed to the centre. He has handed to Alan Johnson and John Denham, two of New Labour’s most aggressive ‘modernisers’, key roles in the Shadow Cabinet and at the same time relegated Ed Balls, his most overtly Keynesian colleague, to the post of Shadow Home Secretary, which bears no responsibility over economic affairs.
He has rejected Balls’ proposal to impose a 50p top rate of tax on those earning £100,000 or more and opted instead to stick with George Osborne’s preferred rate of £150,000. In anticipation of heightened industrial militancy this year, he has roundly condemned “irresponsible strikes” and is yet to publicly acknowledge the debt he owes to Labour’s trade union affiliates for the crucial part they played in getting him elected.
Most significantly, he has committed himself to Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan which, while somewhat less radical than the Conservatives’ slash and burn strategy, nonetheless calls for massive cutbacks in public spending – greater, even, than those imposed by Margaret Thatcher.
All this suggests Miliband was never serious about shedding the dead ideological weight of New Labour, only that he was shrewd enough to recognise the appetite for change in his party and manipulate it for his own gain.
On the basis of his performance so far, the notion that Miliband is going to deviate in any significant respect from the Third Way is a fantasy.
In any case, wherever his personal ideological compass settles, Labour’s electoral dynamics won’t allow him to pursue a genuinely progressive policy agenda.
Outside London, Labour won just 16 per cent of the vote in southern England at last May’s General Election. To have any chance of getting back into government the party needs to win at least double that in middle England’s southern strongholds.
Miliband seems to appreciate this reality. In an article published in The Times in July he wrote, “(In 1997) New Labour sought to stand up for the interests of voters in southern England, but by the 2010 election campaign it was clear that they felt we had lost our way. As a result, we were roundly rejected…(The south) was central to our victory in 1997 and understanding the south will be central to victory again”.
This should be read as an implicit admission that Labour cannot defeat the Tories without the backing of voters who live south of the Wash and the Severn. It follows that Labour under Ed Miliband will be as beholden to the political mood swings of this notoriously fickle but crucial constituency as it was under Blair and Brown.
So where does this leave Gray’s Scottish Labour revival? What, exactly, is left of his assertion that Miliband is uniquely placed to address the needs of Scottish voters?
No doubt Gray would argue that Miliband’s endorsement of the Scotland Bill demonstrates his support for Scottish aspirations to greater economic autonomy. But, in fact, the Calman Commission’s proposals tender only a loaded exchange of fiscal responsibilities, not the introduction of substantial additional powers.
Intellectually lazy and/or politically cynical unionists are presenting the Bill as a profound constitutional re-ordering designed to make the
Scottish Parliament more financially accountable to its electorate. It is nothing of the sort.
Rather, the Bill is an attempt to force reductions in Scottish public expenditure down to English levels and dismantle what many in England see as a bloated and heavily subsidised Scottish welfare state. That Miliband subscribes so enthusiastically to its prescriptions illustrates perfectly the nature of his politics.
The Labour Party’s relationship with Scotland is growing ever more fraught. As the pressure to conform to Westminster’s Thatcherite consensus rises and, correspondingly, the will to resist that consensus strengthens at Holyrood, the party finds itself caught between two irreconcilable trends.
The widening ideological gulf between north and south threatens chaos in the Labour ranks. Gray’s initial optimism about Ed Miliband will soon be replaced by the realisation that his leadership poses more problems for the party’s Scottish contingent than it can ever solve.