Labour should be doing better than it is on both sides of the Border.
A growing band of economists now agrees that Labour’s critique of the Coalition cuts as “too fast too deep” is bang on the money. Yet polling suggests most voters still blame the Labour government rather than world events for the state of the public finances. And even after the International Monetary Fund last week downgraded the UK annual growth forecast to a miserable 1.1%, voters rate the Tories higher than Labour for economic competence.
Meanwhile in Scotland, though youth unemployment approaches crisis level and solid small and medium-sized businesses are starved of loans and equity funding, the SNP continues to ride high in the opinion polls. Both Labour leader Ed Miliband and Iain Gray, the outgoing group leader at the Scottish Parliament, often say the right things but voters do not seem to be listening. Because there is a dire need for coherent opposition in both Westminster and Holyrood, this week’s Labour party conference in Liverpool needs to restore momentum.
If Labour is to start winning the argument again, not just intellectually but emotionally, the party needs bold leadership in both London and Edinburgh. It is absurd the Scottish leadership will not be resolved until December 17, more than seven months after the party was trounced in the Holyrood elections. A lesson from the attenuated national leadership contest last year is that it leaves an open goal for Labour’s foes.
In voting yesterday for a beefed-up role for the next Scottish leader, there is a recognition the current structure, in which Mr Miliband technically holds that role, is no longer tenable. It is ridiculous it has taken more than a decade after devolution to make this change. It reflects a lack of agreement within the party on how much autonomy to allow the party in Scotland, with some MPs still resistant to the whole notion of devolution. That is why Labour has never come to terms with the consequences of its own Scotland Act. If the party does not do so now, it risks becoming a marginalised force in Scottish politics, as the Tories have done. One Scottish leadership contender, the MP Tom Harris, made such an argument at the weekend. Another contender, MSP Ken Macintosh, welcomed the new structure and promised to campaign on a “devolutionist” ticket, as opposed to a unionist one. But just how much autonomy the Scottish party will be allowed is still unclear. A special conference will put flesh on the bones next month. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour needs to both spell out a positive vision and be prepared to work hard to win voters back by taking on local issues as well as national ones.
In the year since Mr Miliband’s surprise victory over his brother, he has shaken off the “Red Ed” tag and after a faltering beginning, did well during the phone hacking scandal, not only by standing up to the Murdoch empire but exposing David Cameron’s poor judgment in employing Andy Coulson. But he is not resonating with the public, especially men. The public knows more about what he is against than for. He must use his keynote speech tomorrow to flesh out his vision, especially on economic policy. A temporary cut in VAT and a tax on bank bonuses to pay for youth job creation do not amount to a substantial alternative to the Coalition. A publicly-owned investment bank would be closer to the mark.
Mr Miliband also needs to champion Labour achievements and win the argument on responsibility for the economic crisis. After all, unemployment was going down and the economy growing well when Labour left office. There is no reason to don sackcloth and ashes, as some suggest. He also needs to define a better regulated, more compassionate capitalism and how he would tackle the “fast buck economy”. Gordon Brown claimed to be a “serious man for serious times”. Serious times are here again. Is Mr Miliband a serious enough man? He has some convincing to do.
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