Ed Miliband and Tony Blair speak in Westminster Hall on March 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband won't win by telling voters how great New Labour was

Defeated parties do not regain power by fighting old battles but by convincing voters that they have changed.

The demand of John Hutton and Alan Milburn's piece in today's Financial Times is a familiar one: defend our record. Ed Miliband has frequently been charged by members of the last Labour government with failing to devote sufficient time to reminding voters of the achievements of that administration. The Tories, it is said, have been given free rein to trash the party's brand.

Hutton and Milburn's primary complaint is the failure to rebut the Conservative claim that it was excessive public spending that caused the economic crisis. As they write: "The last Labour government could be considered one of the most prudent in modern times. After a decade in power it had cut the deficit and cut the national debt. Mr Osborne cannot have been unduly concerned about Labour spending plans when, in 2007, he committed the Tories to sticking to them. Among the Group of Eight rich countries, only Canada had less public debt." 

In 2007, both the deficit (2.4 per cent of GDP) and the national debt (36.5 per cent) were lower than in 1997 (3.4 per cent of GDP, national debt of 42.5 per cent). It was the crash that caused the deficit (which swelled to 11 per cent after a collapse in tax receipts), not the deficit that caused the crash. 

The claim that Miliband and Ed Balls have failed to point all of this out is unmerited. Indeed, Balls in particular, has often been accused of mounting too aggressive a defence of Labour's fiscal record. In January 2014, he told The Andrew Marr Show: "Do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don’t, nor our deficit, nor our national debt – what happened was a global financial crisis which pushed up the deficit." Similarly, in 2011, Miliband commented: "The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats I think are pedalling a very dangerous myth because they want to tell people that it was somehow all because of a decade of overspending under Labour. It wasn’t. It was because of a financial crash – a financial crash that happened all round the world."

Both men have rightly resisted the demand from the right, and occasionally from the left, to "apologise" for Labour's profligacy. But if they have refused to be as vocal as Hutton and Milburn would like, their caution has been wise. The perception that the last Labour government "overspent" is now so ingrained that there is little to be gained from mounting a desperate rearguard action. Miliband and Balls have instead focused on reassuring voters that they would be wise spenders in office, pledging to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as a share of GDP. 

The wider complaint from Milburn and Hutton is that "They have worked harder to distance themselves from New Labour than to defend its record". Indeed, and they have been right to do so. Defeated parties do not regain power by fighting old battles but by convincing voters that they have changed. They win arguments about the future, not about the past. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron all won by defining themselves against both the government of the day and their parties’ former incarnations. Cameron’s failure to achieve a majority reflected the incompleteness of his modernising project.

Voters who deserted Labour betweeen 1997 and 2010 will not be assuaged by reminders of its achievements: the minimum wage, the shortest NHS waiting times, Sure Start and a million fewer pensioners in poverty (any more than they were at the last general election). They will be won back through an honest reckoning with its mistakes: the indifference to inequality, the Iraq war, the lack of financial regulation and the disregard for civil liberties. Miliband was quicker than most to recognise this (the key to his leadership victory in 2010). His failure, if anything, has been an inability to more clearly detach Labour from its past. Those who have abandoned the party for Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have not done so because they believe Miliband has too little in common with his predecessors. 

There are numerous criticisms that one can level at the Labour leader's performance, and that of his party, since 2010. But it does not follow that an unremitting defence of its past record would have served the opposition any better. Indeed, it would likely have served it far worse. 

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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