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Friday, 5 September 2014

Miliband speech shows a leader without a message

Ed Miliband (Photo: Daily Mirror)
Yesterday Labour leader Ed Miliband made an intervention on the Scottish independence question, delivering a stirring speech in Blantyre, the birthplace of Keir Hardie.
 
Calculating that he needed to assert his leadership in the wake of reports showing that large numbers of traditional Labour supports are likely to vote Yes, Miliband sought to appeal to his party’s core voters, urging them to reject the prospect of independence.
 
What was immediately noticeable was Miliband’s emphasis on social justice, a theme that has been somewhat lacking in a debate often focused on the currency question, the EU or the politics of personality. For this – and this alone – his contribution should be welcomed. The independence issue is not a mundane question of economics, but has an inescapable human dimension, and Miliband was absolutely correct to place social justice right at the top of his personal priorities. He was also right in calling to end the “Bedroom Tax”, although quite why a No vote would be the surest way of accomplishing this he didn’t say.
 
But the prominence afforded to social justice matters is virtually the only positive to take from a speech that, for all its dramatic assertions of the value of a No vote, utterly failed to convince. Furthermore, the speech underlines Miliband’s inability to look to the future, confirming his understanding of his party’s identity as being anti-Tory and a natural party of government without providing any kind of progressive vision.
 
His appeal was unimaginative, and starkly confirmed how little he appreciates the reasons behind the decisions of many Labour supporters to break ranks from the party on independence. Turning on the Tories is guaranteed to bring applause among tribal Labourites – but when they are partners in the Better Together campaign is it wise to oppose your colleagues rather than your opposition? Assuming that normally Labour-sympathetic Scots may be voting Yes purely from the perspective of preventing future Conservative governments ruling Scotland, Miliband resorted to the partisan approach - “If you want real change, if you want a change from this Tory Government, the way to do it, is to vote No and then elect a Labour Government which I believe is going to happen.”
 
And that, in a nutshell was his message. It wasn’t so much a reason not to vote Yes, but a call to reinforce the stale binary politics of what passes for Westminster parliamentary democracy.  Basically, he was arguing that there is one way forward for Scotland – and that is to vote Labour at every General Election. The message was so glib, so shallow and so patronising that critique is hardly relevant. The reality that, even if all 59 Scottish constituencies returned Labour MPs, Scotland’s bearing on the wider UK result will always be limited seems not to trouble Miliband’s thinking. Neither does he appreciate the various and numerous reasons why many who vote for Labour at General Elections are opting not to listen to the leadership in relation to independence – to suggest that this is exclusively, or even primarily, an act of defying Toryism is wide of the mark.
 
“People’s antipathy to the Tories is very strong here in Scotland”, Miliband stated, as if it was a new discovery. Indeed it is. However, he would be better advised to reflect on Labour’s current position in Scotland and consider the reasons behind the stunning collapse of support for his party in 2011, and Johann Lamont’s inability to transform Scottish Labour into anything like an efficient campaigning unit.
 
For party members who believe that voting Labour is the ultimate answer to every question, the speech will have been well-received.  But it is not these people that Miliband needs to convince. The truth is that while many will vote for parties at elections for such tactical reasons as preventing a potential Conservative victory, this referendum is not about party loyalty or tribal affiliation – no matter how much Miliband wishes it was. And there are many people who may have been happy to ordinarily vote Labour but in recent years have seen little on the policy front to convince them that Labour is standing up for their interests.
 
This was an opportunity for Miliband to project his vision – for both Scotland and his party. He could have chosen to take up the social justice theme more comprehensively and put forward a progressive programme of reform. He could have discussed his own preferences for political and constitutional reform following a No vote (if you’re going to break ranks from Better Together, you might as well provide some substance). But instead he opted to suggest that his vision for Scotland was simply to be a means of providing Labour MPs for Westminster, while his view of his party was as a vehicle for keeping the Tories from power. Miliband is grossly misjudging grassroots Labour activists if he believes they desire nothing more than the pursuit of power at the expense of the Tories: has he no recollection of the Blair years?
 
Rather than deliver a case for the Union - or even a case for voting No, as they are not necessarily inclusive of each other - all Miliband succeeded in doing was to suggest that Labour continues to take Scottish voters for granted. Arguably more worryingly, in pointing to a Westminster Labour government as the the answer to the Scottish Question - whatever that question is - the Labour leader has reinforced the notion of Holyrood being a second-order interest. Scottish voters, more social democratic by inclination than their English counterparts, are important only to facilitate a Labour government of the UK. Labour's self-confessed complacent reliance on Scottish voters - voters who have in recent years showed an unexpected independence of thought - is not an argument for anything other than for overdue reform of the democratic system.  Perhaps Miliband's most serious error of judgement is to assume that those he is attempting to reach out to want a Labour government in Westminster as badly as he does.

In any analysis, his speech fell far short of providing any kind of satisfactory answer as to why those who value social justice should vote No. I would also suggest it asked the question “what is the point of the Labour Party in Scotland?” without providing any kind of answers – or indeed insights into the kind of post-referendum Scotland Labour would like to create.
 
Miliband looks increasingly like a leader without a message. It may only be a matter of time before he is a leader without a party.

1 comment:

Angry Weegie said...

Miliband demonstrates his, and his party's, complete inability to come up with fresh ideas. In the UK, Labour's only policy is we hate the Tories. In Scotland, it's we hate the SNP. Beyond that, we get nothing, other than we'll do the same as you, but slightly different.