Is politics back in fashion? People like me have been moaning for years about how all the parties are the same at Westminster, crowding the centre ground and pursuing synthetic focus group policies. But after this week, just maybe, things have changed. Between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, a gulf in policy and ideology has emerged that, on the surface at least, looks as wide as anything we have seen in the last two decades
David Cameron attacked Ed Miliband’s plans to freeze energy prices, build 200,000 houses a year and scrap the bedroom tax, as a lurch to the left. Tory ministers will accuse Labour of the politics of envy for wanting to extend the bank levy, introduce a mansion tax, axe higher rate pension tax relief and possibly restore the 50p tax. Worst of all, with Ed’s threat to confiscate development land, end NHS privatisation, selectively increase the minimum wage and curb bank bonuses, the Labour leader will be accused of taking Britain back to the bad old days of the 1970s, of class war, nationalisation and state controls.
That is far from the case. However, before deconstructing “Red Ed”, a word in defence of that much-maligned decade. 1970s fashions may have been execrable and industrial confrontation was out of control. But Britain was at its most equal, in terms of income and wealth, in 1977. It was an era of genuine social security, when houses were cheap, jobs were relatively abundant, Britain was an industrial nation, and there was genuine social mobility thanks to free higher education. Unemployment was thought to be excessive when it surpassed one million.
Countries like Germany and Norway have stuck essentially to 1970s consensus politics with great success. Britain left for the far side of Thatcherism and ended up with a dysfunctional economy dominated by a banking kleptocracy. But in our deracinated political culture, under both New Labour and the Conservative coalition, the bogey of the 70s has been used to close down political debate, in England at least.
In Scotland, the SNP adopted Labour’s social democratic agenda almost wholesale – unilateralism, abolition of tuition fees, social housing – and has been successful, electorally at least. So successful that Ed Miliband wants to steal some of it back – on bedroom tax, even votes for 16 year olds. When Johann Lamont’s “Cuts Commission” – launched exactly a year ago – reports on the “something for nothing society” it may find that it has caught up with New Labour just as it has been superseded by Ed Labour
But only up to a point. The Labour leader’s radicalism is heavily circumscribed. He is not proposing a fundamental shift of wealth and power, nor will he back his conference on public ownership of rail and Royal Mail. He said nothing about nuclear weapons and isn’t proposing to to redistribute wealth or restore the principle of free education. Miliband is responding to the despair of Middle England as it discovers, to its surprise, that it is no longer the poor who are being squeezed.
The general decline in earnings since 2008 has masked a profound shift in British social demography. With student debt, house prices and the collapse of the old career structure, the aspirant middle classes of the 21st Century are discovering they no longer have a foot hold on prosperity. The old distinctions between the middle class and the working class, as in that old Frost Report sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, have eroded.
This is why Labour is banging on about the “cost of living crisis”. That is something the working poor have always suffered, but now it is spreading across the social divide, leaving a gulf between ‘us’ and a super rich 1% ‘them’. “Red” Ed has realised that this has revived the market for elements of the old social democratic consensus. His targeting of the energy companies is no accident: high energy costs hit the middle classes disproportionately because they have larger houses. Indeed, had the SNP proposed a price freeze Ms Lamont’s Cuts Commission would probably have accused it of being regressive.
Whatever you think Ed Miliband’s qualities as a leader, he has an astute understanding of political dynamics. He has drawn a line under the New Labour experiment and rediscovered the rhetorical power of fairness. Getting both the profiteering energy companies and Peter Mandelson to disown him in the same week was pretty good going. And this week, the Conservatives will be left defending the indefensible – bankers, energy bosses, property developers and people who live in £2m houses.
But what does it mean for Scotland? Well, it could mean that the SNP has a fight on its hands. It can no longer roam freely across Labour’s abandoned terrain of social democracy. If there appears to be a genuinely left of centre party bidding for power in Westminster, the argument that Scotland needs independence to secure social objectives is undermined. It is much too early to tell yet because the Scottish Labour Party under Johann Lamont has moved in the opposite direction by defining her leadership through an assault on universal benefits. But the Nationalists may no longer have all the best tunes.
Voters in Scotland often despair at the tribalism of politics, where parties, Labour and SNP, berate each other instead of working together for common goals. On social housing, bedroom tax, green energy, NHS, apprenticeships, gay marriage, living wage etc Salmond and Lamont are on the same side. Much of their mutual antagonism can be put down to the fact that Scotland used to be effectively a one party state run by Labour. If you wanted to get on in Scotland, in public sector jobs, local government, quangos etc. you first had to join the Labour tribe. This power of patronage has been destroyed by two SNP governments and the destruction of Labour electoral monopoly of local government – though ironically it was a Labour FM, Jack McConnell, who sealed their fate by introducing fair voting in council elections.
Beyond that, there is the old antagonism of the Left to nationalism in all its forms, which goes back to George Orwell and socialist internationalism. Left wing intellectuals in England still instinctively recoil on any politics based on national identity, even though the SNP is a civic nationalist party that supports open borders and seeks independence for social objectives.
I don’t think Alex Salmond will be losing too much sleep over Ed Miliband’s rediscovery of social democratic rhetoric. The Labour leader’s ignorance of Scottish politics was revealed by his suggestion, in his speech, that the NHS might be split by independence. It is already split, thanks to the Tory reforms – and in Scotland the SNP government has defended the integrated National Health Service that Ed Miliband says he wants for the UK as a whole. His attacks on Alex Salmond for being tax-cutting Tory are similarly wide of the mark.
The SNP will only find itself challenged in Scotland if the Scottish Labour Party discovers its voice, shakes off its antagonism towards popular policies like tuition fees and stops behvaing like the party of the council bureaucrat. And there is no sign yet of that.