The speech we've longed to hear from a Labour leader

Ed Miliband spoke the simple truth that Blair and Brown avoided: inequality harms us all.

He took an awfully long time to get going but after an awkward introduction, complete with clunky jokes, Ed Miliband delivered the sort of thoughtful, progressive speech we've longed to hear from a Labour leader.

There was a wonderful Spirit Level-style attack on inequality, an eloquent defence of trade unionism and an unambiguous condemnation of the Iraq war -- a necessary moment of catharsis for the party.

In one line he spoke the simple truth that neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown gave voice to: "The gap between rich and poor does matter. It doesn't just harm the poor it harms us all."

He vowed not to attack the coalition from the right on crime and civil liberties, a welcome break from Blairite type and a smart way of setting the Conservatives against each other. He reached out to centrist voters but steered clear of the sort of easy populism -- "British jobs for British workers" -- that returned to haunt Gordon Brown.

His decision to rebut those tabloid epithets -- "Red Ed", "Forrest Gump", "Wallace" -- was a risky one. The public, many of whom won't have heard these charges before, will inevitably wonder: 'why was he called them in the first place?', 'what is he hiding?'. But his call for a "grown up debate" will have resonated with many.

Yet the speech was dangerously short of detail on the defining issue of this Parliament: the economy. His position on the deficit was an awkward hybrid of the Darling plan and the Balls plan. He failed to answer the key question: at what point does deficit reduction become a threat to growth? Miliband and his team need a better answer to this question by the time of the spending review. At the same time he wisely steered clear of dystopian predictions of a "double-dip recession" -- a forecast that may yet return to haunt Ed Balls.

Fresh from a marathon leadership election, Ed Miliband was never going to have trouble playing his winning tunes on Iraq, civil liberties and a living wage. But he will soon be tested by events. Which cuts will he support? Which will he oppose? Which strikes will he support? Which will he oppose? In common with all his predecessors, it is his judgement that will count in the end.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.