Miliband matters as much as Hague did

No one cares how Labour chooses its shadow cabinet. They've already chosen a man who will never be p

I snorted with affectionate derision at the sight of the old hippy: --Who does he think he's kidding? It'll take more than a hooded top to hide your lost youth, old man! Ha! Look at that stoma-- at which point I got close enough to realise that I'd been looking at my own reflection, as I approached a shop window from a literally and metaphorically obtuse angle. I hurried home, past Oxfam, minus a hooded top, with the immortal words of Jennifer Saunders ("a zeppelin in a condom!") ringing in my ears.

It's often remarked that we come closest to seeing ourselves as others see us, in those moments of unprepared shock. My loss was indeed Oxfam's gain. It sticks in my mind because the same day, to continue to strangle the metaphor, I found myself in the role of the obliquely-angled shop window, reflecting back at the - forgive me, there's no way of dressing this up - willful disinclination of the Labour Party to look itself squarely in the face and confront the mess that it's in.

I'd read a story about some change Ed Miliband wants to make in elections for the shadow cabinet, or rather I'd read excited twitterings from the Media Political Complex about how exciting, how radical this was, a sort of Clause IV "moment", or at least Clause IV nano-second; how it showed real, like, whatever, and I thought: poor Labour. I know how you feel.

Really, I do. I remember, some time before the end of the 20th Century, William Hague announcing changes in our party's constitution. For the first time ever we were to be allowed a vote in the election of the leader. There was tons of other stuff too, about the composition of various party boards (like, whatever), all breathlessly communicated to party members. I stuck a sort of pledge-card of the changes above the kettle in my kitchen in Harlow, imagining a sequence of excited dinner-party guests catching sight of it, and exclaiming: Goodness, how your party's changed! I must sign up for membership. And I'll certainly not be voting Labour again, what a terrible mistake that was!

Well, of course, none of that ever happened. I didn't own a table, for one thing, and I can't cook, for another, so there never were any dinner parties. And the guests who never came to them continued to vote Labour, well into the 21st Century.

Internal party changes may or may not be needed: but they are of almost no interest to normal voters. So I tweeted some comparison between Miliband and Hague, based on those youthful, hopeful memories that I'd once foolishly entertained. George Eaton, a writer at the New Statesman replied: "False comparison. Hague's only poll lead was during the fuel protests. Labour has led consistently under Miliband."

To the extent that George is typical of the Labour Party's thinking, this is bad news for Ed Miliband. Bad enough for Labour to imagine that tinkering with the party constitution is sufficient evidence of change with which to re-enamour the voters - since you can't actually do anything in opposition, you may as well faff around with internal party mechanisms. (Blue Labour will do nothing for Labour either; but that's another column). But to imagine that the current opinion poll lead is evidence that no more is required than to wait for the next election, when a grateful electorate will fling off the coalition and flock to Miliband, crying: Please, please allow us to vote for you again, we really want more Harman-style identity politics - well, that's as deluded as those middle-aged blokes you see, muttering to themselves in the High Street, wearing inappropriately-tight hooded tops, and not getting away with it. Not getting away with it at all.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.