Labour's tougher line on bonuses

Party steps up the rhetoric but will it win back voters?

From the Labour conference

Alistair Darling's speech this afternoon was another example of the harsher line Labour ministers have taken on bank bonuses at the conference.

He promised that the new "clawback" system planned by the government would end the "reckless culture that puts short-term profits over long-term success". He also said: "It will mean an end to automatic bank bonuses year after year. It will mean an end to immediate payouts for top management."

But will it help lift Labour's dismal poll ratings? Today's ComRes poll for the Independent put the party level with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent, with the Tories on 38 per cent. Even allowing for the Lib Dems' standard post-conference bounce this is a remarkably low level of support.

Labour's best hope probably does lie in a populist stance on bonuses and extravagant salaries, with more measures such as the popular 50p income-tax rate. The test will be whether the party offers sufficiently distinct policies from the Tories.

I'd expect David Cameron and George Osborne to promise similarly tough action on bonuses in Manchester next week. The election success of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, who won by tacking to the left on bonuses and pay, is likely to concentrate Conservative minds.

I'm off to hear Ed Miliband in conversation with Steve Richards this afternoon, but it's his brother who's been garnering favourable headlines today.

The ComRes poll I mentioned earlier found that Labour would perform better at the next election under David Miliband than any other alternative leader, with the exception of Jack Straw. Under either of the two, Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament, opening the way for a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Miliband is certainly enjoying a better conference than last year. His address at last night's New Statesman party was confident, amusing and self-deprecating. He made light of the 2008 "banana incident" by quipping about the multiple photo opportunities this year's crop of fresh fruit stalls provides.

But those who suggest Miliband represents Labour's future forget that the trade unions continue to hold a third of the votes in Labour's electoral college. Many trade unionists regard the Foreign Secretary as little better than a Tory.

There's been less discussion of Straw's impressive performance in the poll, although in the past he's been spoken of as a possible caretaker leader. If Labour's defeat next year is as severe as some predict, its younger figures may wish to keep their powder dry until the party has regained ground.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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