What Salmond could learn from Miliband

The Labour leader has displayed a willingness to confront "vested interests" generally lacking in the Scottish First Minister.

Ed Miliband's conference speech may or may not turn out to be the game-changer his supporters hope, but there's little doubting the scale of the Labour leader's ambition. By reaffirming the right of the state to intervene in the market, Miliband is kicking against the constraints Labour imposed on itself during the Blair era and, in the process, attempting to fashion a new post-crash consensus. From a Scottish perspective, it's interesting to contrast Miliband's increasing stridency with Alex Salmond's tepid response to the crisis of neo-liberalism.

When Miliband challenged Rupert Murdoch's reactionary influence over British media and political life, Salmond remained strangely loyal to the News Corporation chairman. When Miliband attacked corporate tax avoidance, Salmond handed Amazon £10m worth of Scottish government money and encouraged the company to establish distribution centres in Scotland. Where Miliband has pledged to rein in monopolistic energy companies, Salmond opposed George Osborne's windfall tax on North Sea oil profits. Since becoming leader, Miliband has displayed a willingness to confront "vested interests" generally lacking in the Scottish First Minister.

In other respects, however, Salmond continues to outflank Labour on the left. The SNP's defence of universal benefits, resistance to public-private partnerships and opposition to nuclear weapons have undermined Labour's claim to speak for progressive opinion in Scotland. Moreover, when it comes to the issue of defence, Labour swings sharply to the right. Last week Jim Murphy, Labour's shadow defence secretary, ridiculed SNP plans to reduce Scottish defence expenditure by £800m - a policy any truly social democratic party would welcome.

Of course, Miliband and Salmond operate in different political contexts. Miliband is trying to seize the opportunity presented by the financial crisis to move the terms and conditions of British debate in a more radical direction. He faces determined opposition not just from the Conservative Party but from the right-wing press and large sections of the English electorate as well. In Scotland, the right has been weak for years and shows little sign of renewal. Hostility to the Conservatives is entrenched. As much as their supporters might deny it, the ideological divide between Labour and the SNP at Holyrood is far less pronounced than that between Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster.

But here's the problem: competition is a good thing in politics. It forces politicians to be innovative. The absence in Scotland of any meaningful challenge from the right has allowed Scottish politics - and with it Scotland's so-called "social democratic consensus"- to grow stale. In line with its Labour-Lib Dem predecessor, the SNP government has taken steps to preserve what remains of Britain's post-war welfare settlement, not radically extend or improve it. Fourteen years on from the founding of the Scottish Parliament, there remains a paucity of Scottish think-tanks and policy units. With the exception of the chronically under-funded Jimmy Reid Foundation, the Scottish left has no equivalent of the IPPR or the New Economics Foundation.

The suspended state of Scottish social democracy is also a reflection of Holyrood's limited remit. The Scottish Parliament can, to some extent at least, mitigate the effects of Tory austerity but it is powerless to pursue an alternative economic strategy. Perhaps independence would enhance the quality of Scottish political debate by testing the strength of the main parties' social democratic convictions - with full control over welfare and economy policy, an independent Scottish government would have no excuses for failing to tackle Scotland's poor social record and lagging growth rates.

That's not to say Holyrood is simply an infant version of Westminster. Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has passed various pieces of legislation - including on climate change, homelessness and land reform - which, in terms of their radical ambition, far outstrip anything Westminster has produced in recent years. Yet, increasingly, Scottish political discourse feels like one long rhetorical appeal to some ill-defined idea of "social justice". With the independence debate now well underway, Salmond has a unique opportunity to change that. He might benefit from a dose of Miliband's political courage.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond addresses a rally of pro-independence campaigners on September 21 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.