Paul Sinclair: Labour still in search of big idea

"There is a sense that Labour doesn't yet have permission to be heard." Picture: Getty
"There is a sense that Labour doesn't yet have permission to be heard." Picture: Getty
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ED MILIBAND’S best policies are reactive and opportunistic, and here in Scotland it is Nicola Sturgeon who is doing the serious thinking, writes Paul Sinclair.

There are predatory capitalists and there are productive capitalists. This we know because Ed Miliband tells us so. But could it be the case that there are also predatory political leaders and productive ones?

Imagine a political leader who decides to take on the biggest media mogul of the day, whose newspapers oppose him, but only does so when phone-hacking becomes an issue. Predatory or productive?

Or one who, with his leadership in doubt and gas and electricity prices rising, demands a freeze on utility bills.

Or one who, after the press reveal that there are tax avoiders and evaders with Swiss bank accounts, comes out against tax evasion.

If it isn’t predatory, it is at best reactive rather than productive. It is responding to someone else’s agenda rather than setting your own.

And that is not the way that the Labour Party is going to win the general election.

The news that some people with Swiss bank accounts want to avoid tax I find as shocking as the revelation that some men who go to Edinburgh’s saunas don’t want just a massage.

We need something more than instant-mix moral outrage as a message.

In the 2003 Scottish election campaign, I remember attending an hour-long economic speech given by the then chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Afterwards, I got into the car with him and he asked me what I thought of it. I said it was very good. He replied: “No it wasn’t. It was boring. But it was intellectually coherent and it will tie the Nats in knots for weeks.”

He was right. It did.

So last week, while the Labour Party frothed at the mouth about those Swiss bank accounts, Nicola Sturgeon delivered a speech in London explaining why she didn’t agree with the austerity agenda.

Now I don’t want to be offensive, but I believe it is difficult for a Nationalist to give a rationally argued speech. The case for independence, I feel, is an emotional one not a rational one.

But Sturgeon’s speech was different. It was a carefully argued, intellectually coherent counter-argument to the Tory government’s policy. She argued that, yes, the books need to be balanced, but that it is better done gently as cuts limit the growth we need.

It was the best speech I have heard her give and the best articulation of the case against austerity I have heard.

In itself, it won’t win votes on the doorstep. There were few sexed-up soundbites.

But it did sound like the foundation stone of an argument that will have resonance. And it was a better articulation than I have yet heard from the Labour Party.

People across Europe are showing they desperately want an end to austerity. That is the current zeitgeist.

It is of course more difficult for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to make such a case. They need to convince voters in the south that they will be tough on the deficit in a way Sturgeon doesn’t need to.

But it was a well-thought-out warning to the Labour Party.

And the response? Well, this week shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran said this: “We now have a Tory party with spending plans from the Great Depression and welfare policies from the Victorian workhouse. Scotland absolutely cannot go on like this.”

While there may be no “I” in team, Margaret certainly knows how to put the “me” in meaningless hyperbole.

There has to be a better argument than this. Merely screaming that the Tories are evil doesn’t make a Labour case as much as it confirms the Nationalists’ case of why do Scots risk being governed by them.

Jim Murphy is trying hard to set out a new agenda as we saw in this week’s David Hume lecture. But there is a sense that Labour doesn’t yet have permission to be heard. There is a credibility gap.

We need to know what Ed Miliband’s Scotland will look like, but so far there has been precious little detail.

“Vote Labour or the Tories will privatise the NHS” doesn’t really have the resonance since we spent that few months of the referendum campaign explaining why that couldn’t happen in Scotland.

Seizing on the news agenda, whether it is phone-hacking, gas bills or tax evaders, may be effective tactics, but it is no alternative to a real strategy.

The Nationalists clearly prepared for defeat better than those of us who fought for a No vote prepared for victory.

They will be anti-austerity and populist and look like being the biggest single Scottish party.

Then, having failed to persuade the people of Scotland to leave the UK, their Westminster MPs will do everything they can to persuade our neighbours that Scotland should leave the UK. And with the current rise of nationalism across Europe, they might just succeed.

The truth is the Nationalists are the political producers at the moment while the Labour Party is looking for chances to prey on.

Sure, it is a nice idea to be able to have a drink watching football. I’m just hoping I don’t feel like I need a drink when I’m watching election night.

• Paul Sinclair is a former Labour adviser to Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander and Johann Lamont.

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