Clegg shows how the coalition will attack Labour in 2013

The coalition will challenge Labour to say which cuts it would keep and which it would reject, but it shouldn't expect any answers.

Nick Clegg's article in today's Times (£) offers a preview of an attack the coalition will use repeatedly against Labour in 2013: what would you do? In reference to Labour's opposition to the coalition's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent for the next three years, Clegg writes: "Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?" He also demands that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband say which of the coalition's cuts "they would keep, which they would lose and where they would find the money instead."

But the Deputy PM shouldn't expect answers any time soon. In an end-of-year interview with the Times, Ed Balls signalled that Labour would hold back its key tax and spending commitments until 2015. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."

Balls's argument is a reasonable one. The Office for Budget Responsibility originally expected the economy to grow by 5.7 per cent between the first quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2012. It actually grew by 0.9 per cent. As a result, the coalition is now forecast to borrow £212bn more than planned in June 2010. In view of this record, it would be unwise for Labour to make any hard and fast commitments until the latest moment possible. Balls has gone as far as banning shadow cabinet ministers from saying which cuts they would keep for fear of creating the impression that Labour will be able to reverse all of the others.

But with a Spending Review due to be held later this year, the coalition will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would match its post-election spending plans, as it did with the Conservatives' in 1997. With little fanfare, the Liberal Democrats have accepted George Osborne's fiscal envelope (which now extends to 2018), if not all of his proposed cuts. For instance, while Clegg successfully rejected Osborne's bid to secure £10bn of additional welfare cuts, limiting the Chancellor to £3.8bn, he did not question the assumption that £10bn of further austerity was necessary, merely that all the savings needed to come from welfare. Whether or not Labour should adopt the same approach is the biggest decision Balls and Miliband will make before the election. A pledge to match the Tories' spending limits would insulate Labour from the charge that it is planning a tax or borrowing "bombshell" but it would enrage the left and the trade unions. I'll have more on this in my column in tomorrow's magazine.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the think-tank Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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