Ed Miliband’s route to Downing Street runs through Scotland. Without the 41 Labour seats that Scottish voters granted Gordon Brown’s party five years ago it will be almost impossible for Labour to reach a majority. With no majority, a smiling Alex Salmond would be all too willing to promise to temporarily back a Labour prime minister. That help would be as fatal as the rope that supports the hanging man. You would be throttled first, then, after much suffering, cut down, lifeless and weak.
This means Jim Murphy might now be the most important man in Ed Miliband’s political life. If Murphy succeeds in edging Labour ahead of the Scottish National party by May, he likely makes Labour’s leader prime minister. If he fails, we could be consigned to opposition, and it takes no great imagination to see what awaits Miliband if he is not enjoying summer in Downing Street.
Relations between Murphy and Miliband have not been purely mutual warmth and affection. Murphy was a persistent Scottish thorn in Brown’s side, ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign, and was unhappily shunted to international development after saying publicly that he was uneasy with a Syria vote his boss was proclaiming as a personal triumph.
Past tensions aside, Murphy and Miliband now have a single common interest: both men need a revitalised Scottish Labour party. This gives Murphy political latitude that previous Scottish Labour leaders never felt they had.
Make no mistake. Having saved the union pretty much solo, Labour in Scotland is now paying a high political price. To turn it around, Murphy and his team will have to win a triple simultaneous chess match against the Tories, the SNP and the perception of ‘London Labour’. It is impressive that anyone thinks he has a chance.
Murphy intends to use his freedom to attack on all three fronts at once. His task is to define Scottish Labour once again as Scotland’s party. One of the consequences of the referendum campaign was that for many the SNP leadership became synonymous with standing up for Scotland’s interests. Murphy has to show that Scottish Labour speaks up for Scotland’s interests alone. While rewriting the party constitution helps achieve this, the task requires Labour in Scotland to assert a vigorous political independence, in style as much as in policy.
That is why it was so important for Murphy to make his campaign launch speech on the same day Miliband made his. It was an assertion of political equality. Where previous Scottish Labour leaders have put party unity before all else, Murphy must dramatise the specifically Scottish nature of Scottish Labour, and be unapologetic in doing so. Sometimes that will mean a bit of a rammy with Westminster.
Next, that political independence needs to be placed in the service of an identifiably Labour cause. Murphy has to find a way of recoupling the case for the union to the cause of greater social justice. One way the SNP won the ‘post-referendum’ was exploiting the idea that the continued union represented a threat to social justice that only the SNP would stand against. That is why Murphy made his first political pledge on the redistributive power of the mansion tax. Taxing wealthy Londoners to fund Scottish healthcare is what a reborn social unionism should be about.
Using a mansion tax paid by wealthy southerners to fund the Scottish NHS meant Labour could make a redistributive promise only possible because of the union, while asserting his own political independence from ‘London’. The enjoyable scene of Diane Abbott attacking Murphy from the right was helpful for both campaigners. Mini-fistpumps all round.
The third task is to undermine the SNP’s self-image as the natural party of Scottish government. Support for the SNP is not just about support for independence. It is also about a belief which the SNP nurtures carefully about its own unity, competence and therefore greater ability to achieve for Scotland. In reality, the SNP has built political power on offering fantasy projections of oil incomes, while blaming all failures in Scotland on Westminster.
Breaking up that image is crucial to winning back those voters for whom effectiveness is as important as ideology. Here, the SNP’s referendum campaign might come back to haunt it. Having built the case for independence on oil, it now faces explaining to voters why falling energy tax receipts do not undermine its claim to competence.
Any retreat from the referendum campaign will also imperil party unity. With Salmond still a potent political force, the SNP’s unity may be fragile. If Nicola Sturgeon gives him too much respect she will be playing the same second banana role the SNP has enjoyed casting Scottish Labour leaders in. If things start looking less confident for the nationalists that messianic zeal could easily turn to recrimination.
To win, Murphy has to take on the Tories, divide the SNP and revitalise Labour by dividing it. It is a complex three-way chess game, but Murphy, more usually thought of as a streetfighter than a tactician, has a fighting chance of putting Miliband in No 10.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.