Gregor Gall: Ed needs a radical approach to save the Union
In the eyes of many, Labour’s leader has moved too far to the right, but he may yet be the No campaign’s champion, writes Gregor Gall
The strongest asset of “Better Together” – the vote No organisation aiming to save the Union come 2014 – is not one of its leaders. It is, in fact, Labour leader, Ed Miliband. He is the one politician capable of stopping Alex Salmond and the SNP.
That does not sound the most implausible statement when the No campaign leadership is Alastair Darling MP, the former Labour Chancellor, flanked by the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In Scotland, both the Tories and Liberals are widely seen as toxic brands.
So the task of saving the Union essentially falls to Labour. But Darling, and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, are not the big hitters with a positive, upbeat message to sell the case against separation.
That is why the task falls to Ed Miliband. That may sound a little implausible given that Miliband’s personal rating as a political leader lags way behind David Cameron’s.
But that is not the crux of the matter. What Alex Salmond and the SNP fear most is a resurgent and credible Labour Party at Westminster.
If Labour, under Miliband, looked like winning office at the 2015 general election – a little more than six months after the referendum in late 2014 – and on the basis of protecting the interests of the majority of citizens in Scotland, Salmond and the SNP would have no hope of convincing a simple majority of those voting in the referendum to vote “yes”.
Since the advent of Thatcherism, the relative popularity of the SNP and Labour in Scotland has yoyo-ed back and forth upon the changing public perceptions of who is best placed to protect it.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Labour had the opportunity to do so. In the end, its dominance of Scottish seats at Westminster led to its MPs being labelled by nationalists as the “feeble fifty”.
Come devolution, although never as a majority government, voters gave Labour other chances. But judging by the 2007 and 2011 election results, this patience and goodwill came to an end. Although far from achieving a majority, the case for independence as an idea which saves Scotland from the worst effects of a Westminster politics of austerity, neo-liberalism and privatisation is still the recruiting sergeant to the Yes campaign.
If – and it is a big if – Miliband set his course on saving the Union through a turn to social democracy, he could slay what many regard as the double-headed dragon of separatism in Scotland and conservatism in England.
But the problem is that “Red Ed” is no longer red. Indeed, it is likely that he never was, despite the unions affiliated to Labour securing his victory over his rightwing brother, David. And, Ed’s biggest claim to being red is through mere association – his father, Ralph, was a leading Marxist writer.
Upon being elected, he made clear the days of “new” Labour were over. But he has offered no coherent, clear and comprehensive alterative to this worship of the market. In other words, he has put no “clear red water” between himself and the coalition government parties.
Several examples demonstrate this. Over and over again, Ed Miliband (ably assisted by shadow chancellor Ed Balls) has made it clear that the public sector pay freezes will continue and that coalition cuts will be continued if Labour wins in 2015.
Miliband has outlined his vision of “responsible capitalism”. That this does not constitute bringing about any kind of revolution is not the issue. Rather, it is that his pious ambitions are never matched by the willingness to enact laws which can see them enforced. Instead, Miliband – in a very “new” Labour way – seeks to use mere moralism to convince those with wealth and power to be nicer and play a bit more fairly.
The same is true of his last big idea of “pre-distribution”. No longer was the issue to be one of re-distribution of wealth he argued, but rather the taking of pre-emptive measures to prevent the creation of the inequality of wealth in the first place.
This could have been truly revolutionary – until it became evident that Miliband was talking about using education and apprenticeships in a voluntary means to do so and not root-and-branch reform of the very mechanisms by which the rich maintain their wealth.
Again, he proved himself to be a toothless tiger. No hint of public ownership has ever crossed his lips. Neither has progressive taxation. Here it is worth recalling that the top rate of income tax was 60% until 1988 – and that did not kill off the entrepreneurs that Thatcher sought to create.
Miliband is no “Red Ed” because he does not want to scare the horses of the City, big business and the rightwing dominated media. But the cost of this is to scare another set of horses – those that could pull a radical agenda of his towards the common people. These very people are the activists and members of Labour and those union members who pay the political levy.
By continually succumbing to a rightwing agenda, Miliband gives these activists no reason to go out to campaign for Labour. The Unite union is Labour’s biggest affiliate and biggest financial supporter. Its leader, Len McCluskey, has already warned that, come the approach to the 2015 general election, Unite will not support Labour if it is not putting forward more radical policies. Labour’s drift to the right has now been confirmed by Scottish Labour. Johann Lamont’s broadside against universal benefits further undermines Labour’s ability to defend the Union. Instead of playing off pensioners against students, she could have squared the circle by advocating a progressive tax system where the rich pay more (making their prescriptions and bus passes more expensive than anyone else’s) and raising the resources to maintain the welfare state.
So far Labour has become popular because it is not the Tories. But in Scotland to save the Union, a positive case has to be made. Labour is cutting away the very foundations that allow it to do so.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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