Labour needs an answer to Osborne's charge that it would "borrow more"

If the party wants to attack Osborne on this territory, it needs to explain why and how it would borrow for growth.

The loss of Britain's AAA credit rating was a humiliating moment for George Osborne but as this afternoon's Commons clash with Ed Balls demonstrated, the Chancellor's position is stronger than it first appears. After asking Osborne an urgent question on the downgrade, Balls declared: 

He has gone in a weekend from saying he must stick to his plan to avoid a downgrade, to saying the downgrade is now the reason he must stick to his plan.
It was a neat line but Osborne had little trouble resolving this apparent contradiction. In its explanation of the downgrade, Moody's warned against "reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation". Citing these words, Osborne said that while there would be no "reduced commitment from this government", Labour's answer to "too much borrowing" is "to add to it". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make this argument explicitly. Osborne ridiculed their approach as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name". The Chancellor's cause is aided by the fact that more voters continue to blame the last Labour government for the cuts than the coalition. Fearful of giving the impression that they would, in Osborne's words, make "the same mistakes" again, Labour will not openly declare that it too would borrow more (although, as Osborne noted, Ed Balls briefly did on the Today programme on Saturday) .
 
Rather than becoming trapped in a technical debate about the deficit, Labour would be wiser to focus on living standards, but if it wants to continue to attack Osborne on this territory it will need a much better explanation of its own approach. Without explicitly declaring that it would borrow for growth (and explaining why), the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill. And that only strengthens Osborne's hand. 
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.