Alex Massie

Our Butskellite Future?

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David Miliband's blog during this election promises to be very interesting, not simply on account of what he writes but because, if Labour lose and Gordon steps down then, well, you know, he could be the next leader of the Labour party. So, tea leaves and all that. Here's his first campaign post:

It seems to me the Labour Party has three jobs in this campaign. To show how far Britain has come and take on the myth that our country is in decline. Remember wages of £1.50 an hour, winter crises in the NHS, outside loos in primary schools, section 28, declining overseas aid spending? They have all been changed by Labour in government.

We need also to show we have ideas for the future. Whether on the economy, climate change, social care or political reform, today’s challenges demand a government that increases people’s power over their lives and guarantees their security. That speaks directly to the Labour Party’s purpose and one we are uniquely placed to advance in a world that demands policy answers rooted in social justice, mutual responsibility and international cooperation.

And finally we need to show the sham claim that the Tory Party has “changed” for what it is. David Cameron’s claim to have modernised his party  is exposed as entirely false when you survey their prospectus of inheritance tax cuts for the super-rich, immediate spending cuts, bringing back fox hunting and an assault on Europe. The change he offers would take Britain backwards.

Now from a Labour perspective this is all terribly reasonable. It is also unusually, perhaps even becomingly, modest. Let's take these paragraphs in turn: assuming that the Tories are not running on a platform of "winter crises in the NHS" and "outside loos in primary schools" it's worth noting that the Conservatives have no plans to scrap the minimum wage, reinstate Section 28 or cut overseas aid. So these are battles or arguments Labour has won and there is, in these areas at least, nothing between the parties.

Nor, I fancy, would Davi Cameron object to much, if anything, in that second paragraph. It's true that the Tories could be cheerier and lay off the misery of "Broken Britain" sometimes but if that's true of the Conservatives it must be true of Labour too. If it's silly for the Tories to exagerrate the extent of "decline" then it's equally silly for Labour to argue that sending Dave to Downing Street is an invitation to disaster.

Not least because Miliband's paragraph on the differences between the parties is interesting because it is so flimsy. After all, Labour has cut inheritance taxes too and also admits that a severe spending squeeze is on the way. Both doctors agree that the patient must take the medicine, the argument is merely over when. Meanwhile, the future of fox hunting is hardly the most vital issue facing England even if it is a telling dividing line between liberals and the less than liberal.

That leaves Europe and here there is a difference in attitude and stated goals, if not, perhaps, in terms of what's actually likely to happen. True, the prospect of a Conservative government preoccupied by the Europe question is not appealling but I suspect that Cameron will be inclined to throw a couple of cheap bones to the right on this matter while he gets on with other, more pressing business. The electorate and time will tell.

Nevertheless, does it seem too improbable to suggest that a Cameron vs Miliband future might offer a 21st century version of Butskellism? I'm not sure it does. I think there are some real differences between the parties at this election but, looking at what Miliband writes, it is striking to see how the Foreign Secretary declines to elaborate upon them. If the future is Dave vs Dave then it could all be quite chummy...

Of course, there's a long way to go before that happens. Anyway, as I say, Miliband's blog will merit some attention since it must also, one presumes, be read with an eye on any putative Labour leadership contest.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsdavid miliband