What to expect from Miliband's conference speech

A commitment to a mass housebuilding programme and plans to reduce energy price rises will be the centrepiece of his "cost of living" address.

After spending the summer telling voters how much worse off they are under the Tories, the task for Ed Miliband this week is to outline how they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could improve them. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015.

So far, as instances of how Labour would tackle the "cost of living crisis", Miliband has pledged to repeal the bedroom tax, to guarantee childcare for all primary school children from 8am-6pm, to "strengthen" enforcement of the minimum wage (including increasing the fine for non-payment from £5,000 to £50,000) and look at increasing it in sectors such as finance, construction and computing, and to require British companies to train a new apprentice each time they hire a skilled worker from outside the EU. Crucially, these all are commitments for 2015, not merely examples of what Labour would be doing were it "in government now". On The Andrew Marr Show this morning, in a notable shift of language, Miliband spoke of how in its "first year of office", Labour would "legislate" to introduce a fairer immigration system.

The two areas which Miliband hasn't spoken on yet but which will dominate his conference speech on Tuesday are energy and housing. On the former, today's Sun on Sunday reports that he will announce plans to stop firms raising prices when their profits soar, to force suppliers to pass on reductions in wholesale costs, to automatically put four million old age pensioners on the lowest tariff and to simplify price plans for consumers, cutting bills by around £140 a year.

On the latter, as I've previously reported, a commitment to a mass housebuilding programme will be the centrepiece of the speech. Asked at a public Q&A in Brighton yesterday "how will you tackle the housing crisis?", Miliband replied: "Simple. We will start building houses again." 

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband calls the "fundamental problem" of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour's pledge to "rebuild Britain" after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war. 

The hope in Labour is that will prove the political game-changer that Miliband so badly needs.

Ed Miliband stands with Andrew Marr after appearing on his morning television show in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496