Following an open Q&A session with students at the University of Stirling, an exclusive interview with MP David Miliband revealed that the Labour Party continues to face a formidable challenge in its quest to reclaim popular support; however, Mr Miliband asserts that his party is fully prepared to face said challenge head-on.
“Labour suffered a very bad defeat in 2010, and it’s too easy to forget that,” Mr Miliband conceded Friday. “We got 29% of the vote, and … that was the worst election we’d had in 80 years – and I think that puts it in very stark terms.”
North of the border, Scottish Labour fared no better the following year – a loss in power that shocked Mr Miliband, who served as Westminster’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2007 – 2010.
“I was in the advisory team that wrote the manifesto that committed us to devolution and then delivered devolution – and the way devolution was crafted is that no party was ever gonna get a majority on their own. And actually, the SNP got a majority in May 2011, and Labour got a very bad result,” Miliband, now an MP for South Shields, said. “But we shouldn’t be in the least bit sanguine or complacent about what that implies as quite a big mountain to climb.”
In fact, the Labour Party does have quite a mountain to climb – and said mountain is nowhere higher than in Holyrood. Last month, Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont made waves in Scottish Parliament by declaring that her party was prepared to review and cut some of the Scotland’s unparalleled – and undeniably expensive – universal social services that are currently available to its citizens.
“This dishonest government continues the myth that in an independent Scotland we could have Scandinavian welfare while cutting tax to a level that would make Mitt Romney blush,” Lamont argued at Holyrood last month. “Alex Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich. Scotland cannot be the only something-for-nothing country in the world.”
It cannot be ignored that, since 1999, successive administrations in Scottish Parliament – predominately Scottish Labour – have allowed the number of free benefits on offer to increase exponentially. In fact, last year the Scottish government spent a whopping £1,409 more per head on social welfare benefits than Westminster spent on its English citizens.
Accordingly, David Miliband – who served as the Minister of State for Communities and Local Government from 2005-2006 – appears to take special interest in Ms Lamont’s assertions, and agrees that there must indeed be an intensive review of public spending in Scotland.
“I think that Johann Lamont made a really important point, which is that you can only have free prescriptions if you’re willing to sack 3,000 nurses,” Miliband said immediately following Friday’s lecture. “Politics is about choices, and just saying something’s free is not enough. Nothing is free – everything has to be paid for somewhere, so I think she was making a really important point.”
Meanwhile, Mr Miliband appears to remain firmly committed to the notion that – although social work and public spending are vital to the nation’s infrastructure – corners do indeed stand to be cut.
“There’s been a change in the psychology of the country actually – social security support has moved from being seen as a birthright to being something that’s balanced by responsibilities as part of a social contract,” Miliband said Friday. “And the truth is we’re storing up massive problems for ourselves. The net present value cost of that level of … unemployment is £30billion at today’s prices. There’s a hard message on this as well: you can only afford to [fix unemployment] if you’re willing to put on the table other things that you can’t then spend on.”
“You know, an easy answer is ‘well, tax bankers’ bonuses’. But if we’re honest, we’re gonna have to rebalance the welfare state so that it’s much more in favour of supporting the things that are priorities rather than things that aren’t. Childcare and housing are massive drains at a time when wages aren’t rising very fast.”
Indeed, both David Miliband and his younger brother – MP and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband – have made calls for a national minimum wage increase of up to £7.20; however, David continues to maintain that the UK’s labour market is stronger than ever.
“The market isn’t the answer, but the state isn’t the answer either – and in a way, what voters want, I think, is the best of both,” Miliband asserts. “They want the public interest defended, but they also want dynamism, the efficiency that comes from market choices. And I think that’s what we’ve got to learn – did Labour do it all right in government? No, we didn’t get everything right … free markets have a tendency to overshoot and collapse. But we did some things really well.”
In fact, although the bulk of the financial market collapse developed whilst under his party’s watch, David Miliband reckons that this has something to do with the UK’s overly-centralised government.
“I don’t believe in global governance that decides everything – I don’t want Westminster to decide everything – and so I think there’s an interesting question, and in a way, Scotland is a test case of this because there is devolution: does a balance of localised power where you can, nationalised power where you have to – does that work? And that’s what you have to work through,” Miliband said. “I want to see the UK become an improved union – and in my constituency in South Shields, the centralisation of power in Westminster is more acute in its impact on us than it is on you, because you’ve got devolution on a whole range of things. We haven’t got proper devolution for towns and cities of England – and so I’d like to see the union be much more comfortable with devolution across the UK rather than just in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
Trivially enough, this notion that the government should devolve more legislative powers to the UK’s cities and towns is more or less a rehash of Prime Minister David Cameron – whom Mr Miliband refers to as a “problem child” – and his 2010 push for a ‘Big Society’ that embraces localism and devolution. That said, it remains utterly clear that a push for more devolution in the UK is, above all else, David Miliband’s primary argument as to why Scotland should vote ‘no’ in its impending referendum on independence.
“I strongly believe that the UK is better off with Scotland in the UK – but in the end, the Scottish people have to make the decision about whether they think they’re better off in the UK. And that’s your choice. Is it very, very important that those of us who are hoping that you decide to stay in the UK don’t present this as the status quo in the UK versus change to Scotland? Yes,” Miliband said. “Because politics is about doing things – not about throwing brick bats at each other at a national level.”
“I think there’s a real worry that the SNP [will spend] the next two years campaigning for independence and forgetting about their responsibilities to government,” Mr Miliband continued. “I think the world is in a process of connecting closer rather than separating apart – that we’re becoming more of a global village – and that doesn’t mean that the neighbourhood doesn’t matter anymore.”
Funny enough, Mr Miliband asserted that one reason Scottish voters should turn their back on independence is simply because the process is essentially ‘a chore’.
“This argument about Europe I’m quite interested in, because I’ve sat in European enlargement negotiations … and there are 35 chapters of EU legislation that you have to go through, and every line you have to ask ‘does the entry of this country change it?’ And then you get down to voting, because in the Council of Ministers, every country has a certain amount of votes – so when you get a new member you have to change the voting weights,” Miliband said. “And critically, you change the amount of money that different countries pay when there’s a new member. So you can see, there’s 7 or 8 countries in the queue already – and Scotland would have to take its place in the queue of negotiating its entry. So one of the things that concerns me if you vote for independence, is that you leave the UK, but you’ll be in limbo in Europe – it’s not like ‘leave the union on Friday, join the European Union on Monday’.”
That said, it appears as if an argument for devo-max is the most well-organised argument against Scottish independence with which the former Foreign Secretary can muster – as the remainder of his arguments are subsequently delivered in the form of repackaged fiscal policy.
“I think it’s a bit unfair to say ‘I’m just here retrotting out some old verities,” Miliband asserted. “But let’s look at the economics properly: if our argument for independence is that ‘we want to get our independence, but we’re gonna keep the pound’, how does that compute?”
“Look – on ‘free prescriptions’, on the tuition fees, money is being spent – and it’s either leaving cuts elsewhere or leaving black holes elsewhere – and I think that’s a really important point that people have to understand.”
That said, Mr Miliband does appear to recognise that, above all else, the decision of Scottish welfare and sovereignty is not one to be taken lightly – and said choices must be made utilising a progressive and autonomous mindset.
“Politics doesn’t stand still, it has to move on,” Miliband warned Friday. “So you should think for yourself, and you shouldn’t be bullied into adopting conventional wisdom.”
In essence, Mr Miliband drew the line there. An exemplary personification of top-to-bottom politics, Mr Miliband may “have a bit of time on [his] hands”; however, his ability to reduce an argument to partisan rhetoric in the style of Holyrood or Westminster is still in top form.
As his Labour Party continues to reinvent itself under the ‘One Nation’ banner being aggressively toted by David’s brother at Westminster, Scottish Labour continues to struggle north of the border in redefining itself. It is perhaps for this reason – as well as his undeniable charisma – that Mr Miliband will continue to tour universities throughout Scotland in an effort to spread Labour’s message to a younger generation that is destined to become – in every sense of the word – increasingly more rebellious throughout the course of the long run up to 2014.