Alex Massie

Why is Hopi Sen a Free Man?

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By which I mean why isn't he cooped up inside Ed Miliband's office, working as a strategy-comms chap? Maybe he wouldn't want the gig but it's a good thing for us (in both a blogging and an anti-Labour sense) that he's still a free man. Take this latest bout of good sense, for instance:

Our nation has significant challenges – from deficit reduction to welfare policy to job growth. As an opposition we must have opinions on all of these, but lack the power to act on them. That is an exposed, vulnerable position.

We already know how the Tories want to define us.  They want to spend the next four years painting us as wasteful in the public services, over-generous with welfare at the price of higher taxes for working families. They want to define us as opposed to the freedom to improve your local public services. They want to make us the voice of vested interests, welfare cheats and out of touch metropolitan elites. Ewwww!

Basically, they want to paint us as the high-tax, high-welfare, high-waste party. How do we know? Because it’s what Tories in government always do.

So our policy response must both be effective as progressive politics and bomb proof against these Tory attacks. Both elements are essential.

A debate about how we ensure housing support goes to those who need it and is provided in a way that does not lead to an explosion in costs when rents rise is essential, not disloyal.

Equally, preventing support for universality being twisted into defending holidays for millionaire mums is crucial to securing electoral support for the universal principle.

A debate about how we combine sensible deficit reduction with decent public services and private sector job growth is not knee jerk reaction, but the critical question facting the left.

So raising these issues is not the action of a disloyal bunch of self hating socialists, but an attempt to engage with the crucial, essential challenge of winning back support for Labour. It may not be the right route, but it is intended as a helpful contribution.

This is in the context of an intramural discussion about whether making John Rentoul cry demonstrates that Labour are on the right track. But it has a wider application too and, frankly, at the moment I'm not at all sure Ed Miliband is listening.

Then again, Ed's a paragon of modest good sense if you measure him by the (low) standards of the numpties running the Scottish Labour Party. Judging by the promises made at their recent conference in Oban you'd never guess that there are difficult fiscal problems to be solved.

Not at all! On the one hand the Scottish block grant will be cut by something close to £2bn; on the other Labour are calling for significant spending increases. These may not be incompatible and I suppose conference statements ought not be confused with manifesto "commitments". (These in turn should not be confused with "achievements".) Nevertheless, the Caledonian Mercury thoughtfully provides a list of spending promises:

    •    Reinstate Glasgow Airport Rail Link (£188 million)

    •    Introduce a Scottish Living Wage of £7 an hour minimum wage (£20 million a year)

    •    Extend concessionary travel to off peak rail (£25 million)

    •    Re-invest in Project Scotland (£6.5 million a year)

    •    Aiding the development of new air routes (£7 million)

    •    Extend boiler scrappage scheme to Scotland (£11 million)

    •    Double the Saltire Prize (£10 million)

    •    Increased support for poorest students (£89 million)

    •    Year’s free newspaper subscription for all 18 year olds (£15 million)

    •    Abolish PFI hospital car parks (£34.5 million)

    •    Right to an apprenticeship for every suitably qualified 16-18 year old (£26 million)

    •    Introduce ‘recycling on the go’ separated bins in high streets (£6.7 million)

    •    Greater investment in forests (£40 million)

    •    Modernise Glasgow subway

    •    Support first-time buyers

    •    Job support, to help small businesses take on apprentices

    •    Establish an Economic Forum to promote growth

    •    Reform and enhance the Scottish Investment Bank

    •    Spend more on cycling and walking

    •    Support a high-speed rail from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh

    •    Invest in a major expansion of home insulation

    •    Invest heavily in renewables, particularly off-shore

    •    Invest in flood management

    •    Eradicate illiteracy and innumeracy

    •    Bring forward early retirement for older teachers

    •    Average class sizes of 20 in Maths and English at S1 and S2

    •    Introduce two hours of quality PE per week in all schools by 2014

    •    Free music tuition with a musical instrument to primary school children

    •    Provide reduced ticket prices for theatrical productions in Scotland

    •    Halve the time from one month to two weeks to see a cancer specialist

    •    Cut waiting times

    •    Offer free swimming lessons for school children, free swimming pools

    •    Introduce alcohol treatment and testing orders

    •    End child poverty by 2020, fuel poverty by 2016 & homelessness by 2012

    •    Create a victims’ commissioner to champion victims’ rights

    •    Facilitate the re-start of public building

    •    Look at completely nationalising ScotRail

    •    Increase investment in social housing

Now some of this is the usual and pointless over-promising blather. Some of it doesn't even rise to that. Homelessness abolished by 2012? Illiteracy and innumeracy eradicated? (This will cause problems within the parliamentary caucus) and so on. But it's also, quite evidently, a wishlist entirely divorced from current fiscal and economic realities. If you wanted to portray Labour, in Hopi's words, as a "high-tax, high-welfare, high-waste" party then, jings, this would be a pretty useful starting place wouldn't it?

Miliband may, of course, say that this is Scotland and they do things differently there. Indeed so and that's frequently the point: if it works in England it must be done differently in Scotland even if that means it doesn't work. Perhaps John McTernan could come home and take command of the Labour playpen?

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.

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