Ed Miliband speaks to an audience at Haverstock School in Camden. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour pledges to outspend the Tories on education: who'll benefit politically?

Miliband is confident that his promise to invest more better reflects the public's priorities. But the Tories will present him as profligate. 

Ed Miliband's successful duel with Tory donor Lord Fink has overshadowed one of Labour's biggest spending commitments to date. In his speech at Haverstock School (his old comprehensive) earlier today, Miliband pledged to "protect the overall education budget" in "real-terms". This contrasts with the Conservatives, who would cut schools funding by 10 per cent in the next parliament and fail to ring-fence other budgets. Labour is now promising to outspend the Tories in the two politically defining areas of health (pledging £2.5bn more) and education. 

The danger for the opposition is that this reinforces its profligate reputation. The Tories are seeking to sow doubt over Labour's fiscal credibility by warning that high-quality public services ultimately depend on a "strong economy" (the area in which they enjoy their largest poll lead). The problem with the party, they suggest, is that it always runs out of other people's money. 

But Labour is confident that its commitment to spend more on public services better reflects the public's priorities. It recalls the experience of past elections (2001, 2005) in which fear of Conservative cuts handed it victory. It was awareness of this failure that led David Cameron and George Osborne to pledge in 2007 to match Labour's spending plans in the next parliament (thus denying their opponents' "baseline" advantage). But the financial crisis and the resultant surge in the deficit led the Tories to abandon their commitment, instead promising an "age of austerity". Their subsequent failure to win a majority was partly blamed by Osborne on voters' fear of the cuts to come. Labour was able to warn (accurately, as it proved) that child benefit, tax credits, Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance were all under threat. 

By vowing to continue cutting even after the deficit has been eliminated, the Chancellor has provided the opposition with a new opportunity to depict him as a dangerous ideologue. Ed Balls's recent claim that his party now owns the "centre ground" was supported by a recent ComRes/Independent survey showing that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the deficit has been eradicated with just 30 per cent in favour. 

There will, of course, be cuts under Labour, as Balls has long warned. Indeed, the pledge to ring-fence education spending means the axe will fall harder elsewhere. But by promising to do so, Labour has further sharpened the fiscal choice between the two parties at this election. 

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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