Miliband attacks the coalition from the right

Labour leader shifts rhetoric and targets the coalition's record on crime.

Here's a rare sight: Ed Miliband attacking the coalition from the right. The Labour leader launched his party's local election campaign in Birmingham today and targeted the government's record on crime:

And when it comes to keeping our communities safe, look what this Tory-led government are doing. Taking 16,000 police officers off the streets.

Ditching ASBOs.

How out touch can you get?

It's a notable rhetorical shift. In his first speech as Labour leader, Miliband was at pains to endorse the coalition's break with Blair-Brown authoritarianism:

When I disagree with the government, as on the deficit, I will say so loud and clear and I will take the argument to them.

But when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I'm not going to say he's soft on crime.

When Theresa May says we should review stop and search laws to prevent excessive use of state power, I'm not going to say she is soft on terrorism.

Of the much-maligned ASBO, Miliband said: "ASBOs aren't perfect, but I have had too many people in my constituency in tears about their neighbours from hell to think that the solution is to just scrap ASBOs altogether."

ASBOs were a valuable political tool for New Labour but they were also blunt and largely ineffective. Of the 20,231 ASBOs issued between 2000 and 2010, 56.5 per cent (11,432) were breached at least once, with 8,492 (42 per cent) of these breached more than once. Unsurprisingly, then, only eight per cent of voters believe ASBOs have been successful in curbing anti-social behaviour. And with each ASBO costing around £3,000 to issue, the cost of failure is high.

Miliband's response, however, isn't to argue for their abolition but for further powers for the police. In a piece in today's Daily Mirror, he suggests that offenders should be frog-marched back to their victims in order to apologise. "When offenders have to confront the consequences of their crimes, they understand the damage they have caused," he writes.

There's a whiff of populism about Miliband's proposal - one is reminded of Tony Blair's short-lived plan for drunken teenagers to be frog-marched to cash points to pay on-the-spot fines - but this is fertile territory for Labour. As Blair never tired of reminding his party, it is working-class Labour voters who are the biggest victims of crime. With the coalition's cuts set to reduce police numbers by 20 per cent, expect Labour to focus relentlessly on this subject.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said scrapping ASBOs was not the solution. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.