WITH the Tories and the Sun trying to trap Labour in a pincer movement, Miliband must act now, writes Brian Wilson.
The most striking, if slightly grotesque, political image of the week must be credited to the Sun newspaper, owned and directed by Alex Salmond’s publisher of choice, Mr Rupert Murdoch.
This was a rare example of a leader demanding the right of his people to be worse off
It depicted Scotland’s First Minister clad in tartan bikini, swinging from a chain attached to a large steel ball. It was not a flattering representation of Nicola Sturgeon but she will not be complaining as it accorded precisely with her own immediate political strategy.
Sadly, readers of the Sun’s Scottish edition were not invited to feast their eyes upon this portrayal. If they had been, even the most naïve might have noticed the contrasting approach across the Sun’s two editions and how, taken in tandem, they coincide with the interests of Nationalists and Tories with one common enemy.
In a double-page spread, the Sun helpfully spelt out the reasoning behind the imagery for the benefit of its English audience. In collusion with Labour, Ms Sturgeon was planning to swing her wrecking-ball of extreme policies in their direction. The only way to defeat this conspiracy was to back the Tories.
Scottish readers of the Sun are, meantime, told something quite different – two editions, two narratives but one proprietor and one objective which is defeat for Labour using the SNP as instrument of choice, north and south of the Border. That coincides with the Tories’ own heavy-handed propaganda, portraying Ed Miliband in Salmond’s pocket.
It is worth recalling that Murdoch has scores to settle in this election. Whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, Miliband stood up to Murdoch and became the only potential prime minister in decades who was willing to invite Murdoch’s vengeance rather than kow-tow to him.
As the Tory commentator, Peter Oborne, recalled recently, Miliband was the first leader since Thatcher set the trend not only to challenge Murdoch’s media ethics but also his corporate ambitions by opposing Murdoch’s bid to take over complete control of BSkyB. Murdoch has a lot of unfinished business with Miliband.
Alex Salmond played his cards differently, abusing the tenancy of Bute House to provide tea and sympathy at the height of the phone-hacking furore. When the Scottish publisher, Hugh Andrew, accuses Salmond of “a tawdry disconnect between words and actions”, he is only half-right. In his dealings with Murdoch, through thick, thin and Milly Dowler, Salmond has been consistent in his fealty.
To some extent, of course, Miliband has himself to blame for allowing the two-pronged movement to gain momentum. He should have made it politely clear months ago that there would be no coalition and no deals with the SNP in order for Labour to secure office. This would have caused some short-term mock horror and name-calling but would have had the great virtue of clarity.
The perfect opportunity arose in January when Salmond declared that the price of SNP support would be “full fiscal autonomy”. This was a rare example, as this week’s Gers figures dramatically confirm, of a political leader demanding the right of his people to be substantially worse off than they are at present.
It is a political demand which makes sense only from a Nationalist perspective. For them, austerity-plus-plus is a small price to pay for fiscal separation if that serves as a stepping-stone to political separation. For anyone representing the Scottish interest who does not subscribe to that strategy, “full fiscal autonomy” is absurd, irresponsible and – critically – involves a high price to be paid by others.
The SNP has no more current interest in propping up a Labour government than it has done at any previous point in its history. But it has a massive interest in sustaining the myth that this is an option. And, of course, the Tories have exactly the same interest – as faithfully reflected in that image of Sturgeon, the chain and the wrecking-ball.
Labour had a good conference last weekend and both Miliband and Jim Murphy gave excellent speeches. There was loads of strong content in the form of policy announcements – things that will only happen if there is a Labour government which there certainly will not be if the two editions of the Sun succeed in their pincer movement.
For example, Murphy pointed out that even though Labour’s initiative on capping tuition fees in England has no direct relevance here, it would lead to Barnett consequentials of £200 million for Scotland. That had not occurred to me and is another powerful validation of why the Barnett formula is as valuable to Scotland as “full fiscal autonomy” would be destructive.
The uses to which the money would be put were well-defined and admirable – restoration of bursaries for low-income students which the Nationalists have cut as part of the inexplicable vendetta against further education, and a new “pot” of £1,600 for school leavers who will never see the inside of a college or university but have at least as much need of public support as those who do – a really good, redistributive idea.
But Labour policies will only be of academic interest if there is no Labour government to implement them. And this was the hole in the middle of these speeches. The chance should have been taken to lay to rest the delusion that it is somehow possible to ditch dozens of Labour MPs in Scotland and still end up with a Labour government. That option simply does not exist.
This omission left the door open to another week of speculation about something that will not happen, with semantic evasions forced upon those asked the straightforward question. Every time the question is evaded, it is inevitable that some of the voters Labour needs to persuade only a clear-cut choice exists will fill in the wrong answer.
If the Tories are the biggest party at Westminster, they will form the government either in coalition or as a minority administration – just as the SNP did at Holyrood by cutting a deal with the Tories in 2007. There are no prizes for the runners-up. David Cameron understands this. Alex Salmond understands this and Rupert Murdoch most definitely understands this.
There is only one way to beat them all and it is past time for that to be spelt out by every Labour voice, without any scintilla of ambiguity.
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