Comment: Labour bid to shift to Left is risky move

Tony Benn may have passed on, but it appears that his left-wing legacy has been reclaimed by Labour.

Throughout the party leader Ed Miliband’s response to George Osborne’s budget and his speech at the Scottish conference in Perth, the language of the Left came thick and fast.

It was matched by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s contribution in Perth yesterday and in her Devolution Commission report published last week.

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After years of political battles being fought by opposing sides attempting to pitch their tents on the centre ground, Miliband and Lamont have signalled their intention to carve out a clear ideological divide between their party and the Tories.

In Scotland, a similar tactic is being pursued. It is being done in an attempt to out-manoeuvre the SNP – which for years has occupied a similar centre-Left position to Scottish Labour.

Yesterday, we saw Lamont attempt to characterise the SNP as a party of the Right accusing Alex Salmond’s party of pursing an “Osborne-max” economic agenda for ­independence.

The SNP’s reluctance to commit to Labour’s plans to restore the 50p tax rate for the highest earners, Lamont believes, is an Achilles’ heel that Labour can exploit.

Her belief that the Nationalists have failed to do enough to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor was a key theme of Lamont’s speech, which was notable for its aggressive tone.

Accusing the SNP of betraying social justice by backing tax breaks for the risk, Lamont attempted to contrast “dishonest” Nationalism with honest Socialism. Her sentiments chimed with the message that came out of the Devolution Commission report. Labour’s vision of what powers Holyrood would receive in the event of a No vote included plans to make it easier to raise income tax on middle and high earners – while making it impossible to lower the rate on the top two bands below that of elsewhere in the UK.

The cool response that the Commission’s position on income tax (and its plans to reform property tax) received, serves as the perfect illustration of why Labour’s new approach could prove problematic. Associating Labour with the prospect of higher taxes is a huge gamble. No matter how noble Labour’s aspirations to help the needy are, the prospect of higher taxes doesn’t win many votes.

It was only by shifting on to the centre ground – to where the voters are – that Tony Blair was able to re-establish Labour as a winning machine in 1997.

Modern political history tells us the moves to the Left do not equate with success at the polls. One need only look back to the 1980s when committed, charismatic, yet ultimately divisive, figures like Michael Foot and the aforementioned Tony Benn held sway within the Labour Party.