Cut, cut, cut: Mehdi Hasan reports on Alistair Darling v Greg Barker

The inconvenient truth is that Labour also wanted to cut more than Margaret Thatcher.

Shadow cabinet ministers and Labour-supporting bloggers alike have become excited by this quote [below] from the Tory minister Greg Barker, speaking in front of an American audience:

We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of.

He's right. But the Labour response is, ahem, odd. Angela Eagle, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, says:

Greg Barker has let the cat out the bag about the ideological agenda behind this Tory-led government's deep cuts to public services.

Hmm. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The inconvenient truth is that Labour, in the so-called Darling plan for deficit reduction, had also planned to go beyond Thatcher, too -- and were equally keen to "let the cat out of the bag".

Here's the relevant quote from the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, in an interview with the BBC's Nick Robinson in March 2010:

Robinson: "The Treasury's own figures suggest deeper, tougher than Thatcher's -- do you accept that?"

Darling: "They will be deeper and tougher -- where we make the precise comparison, I think, is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough."

That's why the Darling plan was such a bad plan. Halving the deficit over four years is a political decision on a political timetable; it has nothing to do with economics. I can't help but agree with Polly Toynbee, who wrote in her Guardian column on Saturday:

Labour should seize this moment. Increasingly trapped inside Alistair Darling's straitjacket, Labour should embark on a new economic direction. The FT quite fairly analysed the figures: the difference between Labour and coalition deficit reduction plans is just £24bn by 2014. Ed Balls's claim that cutting half as much is "a massive difference" is only true if he offers a route map to explain what tax rises and what growth formulae deliver the same deficit reduction as would Tory cuts. Both Eds sound uncomfortable because sticking to the Darling plan means more painful cuts than they can admit. The argument that they are not in power so don't need a complete budget may be tactically correct, but it doesn't work as a public statement. Labour can only take a commanding lead over the next austerity months by offering a more convincing economic alternative.

Over to you, Mr Balls . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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