Annual conferences have long been turned into showcases for the policies and leadership credentials of the respective parties. On both counts, this is not an easy conference for Labour and in particular for its leader Ed Miliband.
The revelations by Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, Damian McBride, of appalling smear tactics used against opponents within the party when in power, have raised searching questions both about the culture that prevailed at the top of Labour and how much the present shadow Cabinet knew about these shameful antics.
There is, too, the smouldering legacy of the Falkirk candidate selection and Mr Miliband’s conflicted relationship with the trade unions. Confusion also prevails over the party’s ability to fund spending commitments, ranging from the scrapping of the bedroom tax to the extension of childcare, the reversal of cuts to legal aid and the reduction of VAT to 17.5 per cent without adding to the nation’s debt pile.
In Scotland, the party faces an uphill task against the SNP’s free-spending Alex Salmond. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont charged that the SNP could not sustain a “something-for-nothing” society and that hard choices had to be made. Self-evident though this is, it has unsettled core supporters.
And then there is the personal standing of Ed Miliband himself. The charge is that he has not yet demonstrated either the authority or the clout required of a prime minister-in-waiting. These doubts were underlined in a poll of 1,350 Labour councillors showing one in three did not think he was doing a good job.
However, the recovery is still weak and has not yet fed through to an improvement in the disposable incomes and living standards of millions of voters. At Westminster, the coalition continues to look vulnerable, with Liberal Democrats anxious to assert their independence. The Conservatives are still trailing Labour in the opinion polls, though Labour needs to see a more commanding lead at this stage in the electoral timetable. And there is still time for detailed policy work to be undertaken and for Mr Miliband to assert his leadership credentials in the period ahead.
Arguably the greatest challenge for Labour is to develop a voice and a set of policies that mobilise that large centre-left social democratic vote without relapsing into the debt and deficit free-for-all that led up to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent deep recession.
An election campaign fought on the old basis of an auction of “free” benefits and voter-pleasing goodies would risk alienation from voters who are now far less trusting of politicians and which, on a return to power, would lead to an immediate confrontation with the realities of a debt-stretched Exchequer. Difficult though this may be, the requirement is to articulate an alternative that boosts aspiration without heading right back to public-spending bubble and bust.
Entrepreneurial award an inspiration
As much as for the timing as for the person, the presentation of the prestigious Carnegie Medal award to Scots entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter next month is an occasion worthy of national attention. The medal is awarded biannually to some of the world’s leading philanthropists, and he is only the second Scot to be so honoured, following Sir Tom Farmer in 2005.
His flair and enterprise, building his business from the back of a van, have long been recognised. But unlike many successful business people content to retire and enjoy their wealth, Sir Tom and his wife Lady Marion went on to establish The Hunter Foundation for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University. This has provided vital support for research and teaching in entrepreneurship across the university and Scotland as a whole.
The award comes after a difficult period for entrepreneurs. A severe recession, followed by prolonged stagnation and a slump in bank lending to small and medium-sized enterprises provided formidable obstacles to business formation and expansion.
But the rapid growth of the internet and e-commerce has enabled thousands of young Scots to strike out on their own, to form micro-businesses, raise finance through innovative methods such as crowd funding and to link up with fellow entrepreneurs, buying in support and specialist services when necessary.
There is, however, still much to be done, for while there are today a record number of firms in Scotland, we still trail the UK in terms of the number of enterprises per 10,000 population. Sir Tom’s example, and the work of his Foundation, are of critical importance. The award at this time is thus a double inspiration for Scotland.