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.