This time last week all eyes were on Scotland for the referendum on independence. Not since the dim distant days when Andy Stewart hosted the annual TV Hogmanay show have so many English people tuned in after midnight to watch events unfold north of the border. As might have been expected it didn’t take long for southern Unionists to drop the saltire and refocus on what the majority No vote meant for England, though the post-referendum hangover was strong enough to turn the Labour Party Conference, which has just finished in Manchester, into an overall rather flat affair.
Ironically, while the efforts of Labour politicians ultimately proved crucial in breaking the momentum of the Yes campaign, Labour finds itself engaged in a struggle to prevent a new constitutional settlement for the UK as a whole from limiting its ability to determine key areas of domestic policy. Labour could find itself unable to form a majority in either the Scottish Assembly or some form of de facto ‘English Parliament’, restricting the executive power of a future Labour government to purely UK matters, notably defence and foreign affairs plus whatever authority remained over fiscal policy within a more devolved Union. This raises the odd possibility of a Labour Government able to decide whether to take Britain to war but unable to fundamentally re-shape the economic and social face of the realm.
Judging by some of the overblown reaction to domestic policy announcements made in Manchester this week there are those who would greet such a prospect with alacrity, though perhaps with a caveat over whether Mr Miliband, whose keynote speech was overshadowed by geo-political events and widespread unfavourable comment on his performance, should be responsible for anything at all. Yet while the detail and possible effects of Labour’s proposals deserve close scrutiny between now and the General Election, it’s hard to see much in what was said this week that could be described as radical in any sensible definition of the word.
Is it radical to propose an £8 per hour National Minimum Wage by 2020? Hardly, I suspect it will be close to that level whoever is in power at the time. Is it radical to propose a Mansion Tax? Surely, the neo-liberal Orange Book Lib Dems support this. Is it radical to propose raising the top rate of income tax to 50p? Only very recently such a rate was considered low and perfectly reasonable.
The truth is that Labour isn’t proposing anything particularly radical at the moment and will fight the General Election on a manifesto which boils down to saying a Miliband Government would pay down the fiscal deficit in a somewhat fairer way than either the current coalition or a majority Conservative government, while prioritising spending on a firmly non-privatised NHS. Labour’s opponents might criticise this 'togetherness' agenda for being wrong or naïve, and will undoubtedly question whether the current Labour leadership is fit to govern. Labour's supporters will present it as a clear and genuine social democratic alternative to the current centre-right offering. But please don’t call it radical.