The Scottish Labour conference on Saturday came at the end of another bruising week in the polls for Jim Murphy’s team.
The latest predictions, from Lord Ashcroft, suggest that Labour could be left with only two MPs in Scotland after the General Election in May with the SNP holding the balance of power, as the Conservatives and Labour face electoral deadlock with 272 seats each across the UK.
Yet the SNP got barely a mention as both Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy addressed the Labour faithful at Edinburgh’s EICC. Instead the focus was firmly on the prospect of another five years of a Conservative led government and their continued austerity agenda.
Miliband acknowledged that it is the Scots who could well decide the formation of the next UK government and stated that Labour were the only party who could ‘boot’ David Cameron out of No10.
Largely ignoring the rise of the SNP and in particular their raid on former Labour heartlands is a risky strategy especially when almost 200,000 people who voted Labour in the 2010 General Election supported the yes campaign in the independence referendum. With little to separate the SNP and Scottish Labour in policy terms and with common ground on key issues such as welfare reform, zero hours contracts and the minimum wage, Labour really are fighting to keep every vote.
Perhaps this is why the spectre of nationalism still managed to raise its head at the special one-day conference, despite the ‘No’ campaign’s victory last September. Clause IV of the Scottish Labour constitution was re-written to include the line: ‘We work for the patriotic interest of the Scottish people’ which, although strongly opposed by the union Unite, the party’s biggest backer, was passed by the majority of delegates.
So it’s clear that Jim Murphy and his aides know that they have a battle in keeping hold of every one of the current 41 Westminster seats they hold. The message at conference was clear, a vote for the SNP will keep David Cameron in Downing Street and the only way to prevent this from happening was for Labour to return a majority.
While the message ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ may well turn out to be accurate it says nothing of what Labour would offer instead. Since Jim Murphy took up the reigns in December last year there have been a barrage of announcements but the maths around the formation of the next government continues to take centre stage.
The policy plans have covered everything from re-nationalising the railways, using the planned Mansion Tax to fund 1,000 Scottish nurses, to reinstating the 50p tax rate and lifting the ban on drinking alcohol at football grounds. At conference the pledge to keep university tuition free in Scotland was reaffirmed and an increase to those eligible for bursaries was announced, to be funded by Barnet consequentials from Miliband’s pledge to reduce tuition fees south of the border from £9000 to £6000.
There was also an unexpected lift for those who don’t take the university path with Murphy announcing a Future Fund which would provide 18 and 19 year old school leavers with a payment of £1600. The cash could be used for training, driving lessons or to help start a business and ensure no young person ‘gets left behind’ said Murphy.
It could be a useful boost to those who have more of a vocational focus but haven’t been able to access further education due to the SNP’s programme of cuts to colleges which have seen courses reduced and staffing numbers plummet.
However welcome this announcement may be, the reality is that it and all the other policy announcements will continue to be overshadowed by the prospect of Scottish nationalists holding the balance of power in an election they wanted no part of just six months ago.
The prospect of the SNP’s role at Westminster is not being ignored by the Conservatives. They have brought forward a planned campaign which shows Ed Miliband peeking out of the breast pocket of a smiling Alex Salmond. A ploy designed to seize on the latest polls and terrify English voters of the prospect of the SNP propping up a minority Labour government or indeed being part of a formal coalition. For them, the added bonus of this tactic could well be an increase in votes for the SNP north of the border which could only help them cling onto power.
Despite rejecting any idea of forming a ‘super coalition’ with the Conservatives out of hand, to date neither Miliband nor Murphy have categorically ruled out working with the SNP post May 7th. While this will be hugely frustrating for loyal Labour voters it’s a sensible plan which could save those wavering from deserting Labour altogether and could make all the difference in the number of seats they retain in May.
With eight weeks to go until the election, the polls will continue to be the focus of media coverage and it remains to be seen whether they will translate into a reality which sees the Labour party in as much trouble in Scotland as they currently predict.
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