Labour manifesto: The important thing wasn’t happening in Manchester at all. It was happening in Scotland

The SNP really is going to win about 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in three weeks’ time and there is nothing anyone can do about it

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The Independent Online

The best thing that can be said about Labour’s manifesto is that it starts in the right place. No, not Manchester, although it’s lovely: the manifesto starts with a commitment to balance the Government’s books. That is where David Miliband would have started five years ago. Twenty-three days before an election is too late, but let us not be grudging. Late is better than never.

It is going to be hard for Ed Miliband to persuade doubting taxpayers in just three weeks that he would be careful with their money, but he decided long ago that he didn’t need to worry too much about that. He isn’t trying to win. He is trying to stop David Cameron winning and so far he is on course to succeed in that unambitious objective.

For that, promising to spend £2.5bn a year more than whatever the Conservatives promise on the NHS was all he needed to do. Never mind that it reduces spending promises to absurdity if one party simply says, “We’ll spend more than you even if you spend infinity pounds,” Labour loves the NHS was always going to be the main feature of Ed’s campaign.

Yesterday’s manifesto launch means that the two main parties are evenly matched, absurdity for absurdity. Labour promises “budget responsibility … as soon as possible in the next parliament”, which actually means “cutting the deficit every year by as little as possible, and balancing the current budget as late as possible in the next parliament”. And, at the same time, spending more than whatever the Tories promise to spend on the NHS. Apart from the Tory promises that are “unfunded” and which therefore don’t count.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, say that they will spend £8bn a year on the NHS by the end of the next parliament. This is £8bn a year that does not yet exist – and that is not forecast to exist by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. George Osborne thought he could get away with it because, unlike Labour, the Tories have a reputation for being careful with taxpayers’ money and so when they visit the magic money tree they can call it a sensible and balanced plan and no one will notice that it is an imaginary tree with banknotes for leaves.

The more interesting politics was happening outside the hall in Manchester yesterday. In the car park, to be precise. The Conservatives had found out where the Labour manifesto launch was taking place and had brought six vans with billboards on them depicting Ed Miliband in, alternately, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond’s pocket. Not that interesting, you might think. Indeed, you might have thought, as the vans were joined by Tory activists in Nicola Sturgeon masks, how childish and silly. But the important thing wasn’t happening in Manchester at all. It was happening in Scotland.

A TNS opinion poll published just before Miliband got up to speak was, as Iain Macwhirter of the Herald sarcastically put it, “a blow for Sturgeon as nearly half of Scots will not vote for the Scottish National Party”. It found that 52 per cent intended to vote SNP, and just 24 per cent Labour, an SNP lead of 28 points.

It has taken a long time for the English political-media complex to realise that something really has happened in Scotland. About six months, in fact. When the first few opinion polls after the referendum showed the SNP inverting Scottish politics by being 20 points or so ahead of Labour instead of 20 points behind – which is where it was in the 2010 election – some of us inhabitants of the Westminster bubble started to tap the side of our computer screens and wonder if something hadn’t gone wrong with what one of my colleagues calls the logarithm. Some of us naively thought that Jim Murphy, the new Scottish Labour leader, would fix it, but just because he is good and we like him doesn’t mean he can work miracles. Not in six months. As with earning a reputation for fiscal responsibility, these things take time.

It was the SNP membership numbers that did it for me. You just cannot argue with a political force that has 1,000 members per constituency, most of them new and enthusiastic. The SNP really is going to win about 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in three weeks’ time and there is nothing anyone can do about it – apart from park six ad vans in a Manchester car park and try to embarrass Miliband. It is not much, but it is best the Conservatives can do. And they do have a point. Because Sturgeon has said that the SNP would never prop up a Tory government, those 50 MPs are only going to prop up Miliband as prime minister. Unless Labour and the Lib Dems can win enough seats to have a majority without the SNP, and the opinion polls put them some way short of that at the moment, a Miliband government would need the votes of the SNP.

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Ed Miliband arriving in Manchester Piccadilly ahead of Labour's manifesto launch (PA)

Precisely because Sturgeon has said what she said, Miliband would be secure to start with. Don’t worry about me, Sturgeon wrote in these pages yesterday: I just want to keep Labour true to its left-wing principles (I paraphrase). But it would not take long for a politician as adroit as Alex Salmond, who would be leading the SNP contingent at Westminster, to make life difficult for Miliband. He has already spoken in interviews about amending Budget resolutions. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, one of the worst laws passed by the last parliament, the SNP can vote against anything it likes without forcing another election. It can string Miliband along and can then unite with the Conservatives – by next year enjoying a Boris Johnson bounce – to force an election at a time of its choosing.

It was a stunt, but the Conservatives were making a serious point with their billboards in the car park. What the SNP would allow a Labour government to do matters much more than the contents of the manifesto that was launched yesterday.