There’s common ground in the Scottish Labour contest, but the welfare vote exposes a credibility problem for a party of principle, says Ian Swanson
Scottish Labour leadership contenders Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh will go head-to-head in a TV debate on Monday, designed to give an insight into the policy differences between them.
They actually share a lot of common ground – so much so that when Mr Macintosh stood against Johann Lamont for the leadership in 2011 Ms Dugdale was one of his key supporters.
She looks the clear favourite this time, but they will each argue their case and once the contest is over the party will begin what is going to be a long slow battle to re-establish itself.
Meanwhile the contest for the UK Labour leadership – where there are real ideological differences – is proving a more fraught and potentially more damaging affair.
It won’t be settled until September and has left Labour rudderless at a time when it really needs to be at full strength to take on the Tories as they try to capitalise on their new majority with a whole series of controversial initiatives. Labour’s disarray over what line to take on this week’s welfare vote underlines the problem.
Acting leader Harriet Harman, enthusiastically supported by Blairite leadership candidate Liz Kendall, was ready to back some of the Tories’ measures, including the “two child” policy, but compromised by saying Labour MPs should abstain in the crucial vote over the Welfare Bill.
Some 48 backbenchers rebelled and joined the SNP in opposing the Bill, but the leadership has now been left having to explain why it did not try to vote down legislation which it has itself argued will cut benefits to many of those most in need.
The party at UK level seems to be falling over itself to move away from the policies on which Ed Miliband fought the general election. The emphasis now is on recognising and encouraging “aspiration”.
For a party which was formed to fight big battles – against poverty and in favour of workers’ rights – the idea that it was somehow a mistake to prioritise combating inequality and that the appeal should instead be to people who want to “get on” is surely a sign it has lost its way.
Of course it is true that if Labour is to win in the UK it needs the votes of people who might otherwise opt for the Tories. But elections are about choice. The point is to present alternatives, not to copy your opponents.
If Labour decides that because it lost to David Cameron in May it must now embrace policies which the Tories advocated and it previously opposed – like drastic welfare cuts and lower taxes for the wealthy – it is drawing the wrong lesson.
In Scotland, Labour lost out to a party whose appeal was not only that it was seen as standing up for Scotland but also that it opposed austerity.
Labour’s election message on austerity was confused – there was a lot of rhetoric against “Tory austerity”, but the party said it accepted the need to reduce spending and appeared to promise cuts even when the independent experts of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said they could achieve their targets without them.
Labour was scared that a rejection of austerity would instantly lose the party economic credibility. But now we are told that happened anyway.
But credibility in the end is not about accepting your opponents’ assumptions and analysis, but rather being consistent in your own principles and policies.
If Labour is not seen to be fighting on behalf of the poorest in society it is in serious danger of undermining its own purpose.