Clegg's free school meals plan raises the bar for Labour

While Miliband can only complain about the "cost of living crisis", Clegg and Cameron can act now.

Labour spent the summer bemoaning the "cost of living crisis" afflicting families as wages continue to lag behind prices. But while Ed Miliband might be identifying the right problems, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have one major advantage over him: they can act now. Clegg's announcement that all five-to-seven-year-olds will receive free school meals from next September, saving families around £400 a year, is the best example yet of how the government is shifting its focus from the macroeconomy to living standards.

The Deputy PM said: "My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year families spend over £400 lunch money for each child. I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families. We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society."

The political danger for Labour is that the coalition will blunt its attack over the cost of living by demonstrating to voters that it is taking action now. With higher-than-expected growth, Osborne has additional revenue to play with, which he is likely to use to fund pre-election giveaways such as this (the school meals plan costs £600m), rather than returning to his original deficit reduction timetable.  The pressure is now on Ed Miliband to produce policies on wages, jobs, housing and childcare that will convince voters that they'd be better off under a Labour government.

Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez take part in a 'Healthy Eating' class at Lairdsland Primary School on September 17, 2013 in Glasgow, Scotland. 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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