Alex Salmond with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon last year. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Miliband v Miliband, Big Alex at Westminster and the rise of quiet conservatism

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley gives his election post-mortem.

On the morning of 12 May I visited Portcullis House in Westminster to see who might be around. The first MP I met was none other than a very cheerful Alex Salmond, who had just discovered that his new office overlooked the Treasury: “I can keep an eye on them from there.” He said that he would naturally have preferred a “balanced parliament – as you would”. And he asked for 50 copies of our recent issue in which, in one of David Young’s cover illustrations, he was featured alongside Nicola Sturgeon as they rode the Flying Scotsman south. The train was hurtling towards Ed Miliband and David Cameron, both prostrate and tied to the track, resigned to their fate.

Cover image by David Young.

 

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A few of our readers complained we’d made the mistake of equating Scotland with the SNP. That wasn’t our intention. But whether Westminster likes it or not, the SNP has arrived en masse, the largest grouping of nationalist MPs in London since the early 20th century, when the Irish Parliamentary Party enabled Asquith’s reforming Liberal government to hold power after the ­December 1910 general election. Their presence adds a fascinating dimension to the new parliament and will be a daily rebuke to a shattered Labour. The wipeout of Labour in Scotland, though it was not unexpected, has left the party understandably traumatised. “We did everything we knew locally but the national wave was just too strong,” one defeated Scottish MP said to me.

In the SNP landslide Labour lost two of its most intelligent MPs – Douglas Alexander and Gregg McClymont – and, in Jim Murphy, one of its toughest street fighters. Murphy will continue for now as leader of Scottish Labour. He ought to ignore the bullying of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, who has called for his resignation and gives the impression of preferring the futilities of opposition to power.

The forces powering Scottish nationalism are varied – deindustrialisation, the fracturing of cross-border class ­solidarity, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of identity politics, and so on. Yet, in spite of all this, as I have written before, the Labour leadership in London was complacent about the events unfolding in Scotland and was unable to respond until it was too late.

Perhaps arrogance and a sense of entitlement blinded Labour to the seriousness of the nationalist surge. I’m a frequent visitor – my oldest friend is an academic at Glasgow University – and it was obvious to me, even as an Englishman, that Labour was destined to lose the 2011 Scottish election – as it did, badly, creating the circumstances in which an independence referendum could be held. There was little Labour could do to resist the torrential surge in support for the SNP in 2015; there was much it could and should have done to thwart the nationalist victory in 2011.

Now activists to whom I have spoken are seriously asking if Labour can ever win again in Scotland. Back in the 1980s when the party was weak it was still strong in Scotland. Today it faces a dual challenge: of trying to win in Scotland, where the SNP has positioned itself to the left and campaigned as an anti-austerity party, as well as south of the Severn-Wash line where, excluding London, it holds only 11 of 197 seats. Deep is the grave in which . . .

 

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The New York-resident David Miliband has moved quickly to say what his younger brother got wrong – he mentioned “aspiration and inclusion” and said that Ed had given the impression the party was going “backwards” under him. When asked by a BBC interviewer about their relationship, David said, his eyes cold and dark, that they “were in touch”, no more or less than that.

Also on Tuesday David tweeted a link to a column by the New York Times writer David Brooks, the paper’s resident conservative. Brooks is interested in ideas and social trends, and uses data intelligently to support his arguments. Like many conservatives, he was intrigued by the Tory election victory and asked why after the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession – especially considering the “unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration” – the world had not turned left. Ed Miliband wagered his entire leadership and election strategy on a belief – and it was no more than this – that the electorate was yearning for a more egalitarian society and a return to socialism. Voters were certainly disturbed by widening inequality but just as important were a desire for fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets.

Yet, according to Brooks, as well as people’s scepticism about the left, “there are a few things centre-right parties have done successfully”. They have championed “national identity”, they have been “basically sensible on fiscal policy” and they have not “overread their mandate”. He went on:

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labour markets as a path to prosperity.

So if, as Brooks suggests, we are entering a new era of pragmatic conservative rule how should Labour respond, if it is not to be locked out of power for the next decade?

So far, the leadership contenders putting themselves about in the aftermath of defeat have been muttering about “aspiration”, as if the act of articulation were simultaneously an act of redefinition – and of absolution. Meanwhile, in other news, Ed Miliband has gone on holiday to Ibiza.

 

Now read Jason Cowley's pre-election piece on "white van conservatism" and the battle for the soul of Essex Man

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.