Andrew Whitaker: Labour set to stoke Tory fears

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy opens the new Labour Party offices in Bishopbriggs. with Baljeet Shergil. Picture: Roberto Cavieres

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy opens the new Labour Party offices in Bishopbriggs. with Baljeet Shergil. Picture: Roberto Cavieres

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LABOUR set to ramp up fear of second term for David Cameron in election plea to Scots tempted by SNP, writes Andrew Whitaker

IT IS an oft-repeated saying in politics, sport and indeed other fields of life, that “no-one goes on winning forever”, just as “no-one goes on losing forever”.

However, the weeks and months fly by and Scottish Labour continues to lag behind the SNP in the opinion polls, with miserable ratings that suggest the party is heading for a near wipe-out north of the Border and another humiliating defeat at the hands of the Nationalists.

As things stand Labour’s high command in Scotland is sticking to its script of how a vote for the SNP on 7 May potentially means a split in the centre-left vote and the prospect of a Tory victory.

But with the poll gap between Labour and the SNP showing little signs of narrowing, at first glance it’s hard to see how Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy’s party can carry on with the same ailing strategy.

Of course, there was Gordon Brown’s recent stark intervention alongside Scottish Labour leader Mr Murphy, when the party declared its intention to deliver powers to top up and vary welfare benefits and the state pension.

Mr Murphy is widely viewed as having made a bright start with plans he claims amount to a relaunch of Scottish Labour, something he may eventually attempt on a similar scale to Tony Blair’s remaking of the party over 20 years ago with the launch of New Labour.

There’s near weekly policy shifts from Mr Murphy, many outflanking the SNP on the left, with a plan to increase the top rate of tax and a pledge to ban fracking – which forced the Nationalist government’s hand and represented agenda-setting not seen from Scottish Labour in more than a decade.

It appears though that, at least for this May’s election, this approach may not be enough to stop what looks like an SNP juggernaut flattening Labour figures in seats up and down the country along similar lines to the Nationalist campaign in 2011, when it was clear weeks before election day that Alex Salmond’s party was home and dry.

So what then will Scottish Labour do as the election campaign ramps up? Will Labour simply opt for a damage limitation strategy and hope to salvage a core cluster of seats and attempt to manage a decline?

There may yet be an alternative game plan emerging from the bunkers of the office of Douglas Alexander, the chair of UK Labour’s General Election strategy.

Mr Alexander, a veteran of Labour versus the SNP battles, will be keenly aware that the Nationalists are well-primed to rebut any warnings that a vote for Nicola Sturgeon’s party will lead to a Tory victory, with accusations of talking down to Scots and of panicking.

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But rather than dumping that strategy wholesale it’s entirely possible Mr Alexander will soon adopt a more nuanced strategy and sharper approach, albeit with the same theme.

It’s not ruled out that we’ll soon see Labour politicians issuing even starker warnings that the consequences of a Labour wipeout north of the Border and the loss of most of the party’s 40 Scottish seats could be the very thing that tips the balance and allows David Cameron to remain in Downing Street.

For all Ed Miliband’s recent bad press, Labour strategists are actually quietly confident that its poll ratings on a UK-wide basis are high enough to at least secure a result that sees it emerging as the biggest party in the House of Commons.

There’s even suggestions that Labour is faring well enough in some of the Tory- and Liberal Democrat-held marginals south of the Border to put it in with a shout of victory come 7 May.

Expect to see and hear Labour front-benchers repeatedly warning that Scotland, which at the 2010 election was the only part of the UK where Labour’s vote went up, could actually this time help deliver a Tory victory and out-vote other anti-Tory areas of the UK. Imagine Labour politicians delivering a message night in night out on the TV bulletins during the closing stages of the election campaign warning that kicking out the lion’s share of Scotland’s 40 Labour MPs could prevent the party even emerging as the biggest on 7 May, let along winning an outright majority.

In an ironic reversal to the Yes campaign’s message during the referendum that the rest of the UK consistently out-votes Scotland at general elections, Labour may well suggest that voting SNP could harm working people in other parts of the Union and lead to the election of a Tory government against the wishes of people in deprived parts of northern England and south Wales.

While appealing to Scots to keep the Tories out in the rest of the UK may not be enough to stem significant Labour losses north of the Border, it may score some points to suggest that the nation could help keep Mr Cameron in Downing Street in a brutally ironic reversal of the script during the Thatcher and Major years, when a Labour-dominated Scotland repeatedly ended up with governments at Westminster it had not voted for.

Mr Murphy, having now established his authority over Scottish Labour with a UDI from the party at Westminster, may even evoke similar messages to those he used during his high-profile referendum campaign street-speaking tour of a “break in solidarity” and claim that an SNP vote could damage other parts of the UK that want to kick out the Tories.

Of course, the SNP with its highly slick and polished campaign machine would rebut such an approach with accusations that a desperate and highly rattled Labour was “going negative”, having run out of ideas. But once again expect figures such as Mr Murphy and Mr Alexander to attempt to portray the prospect of Labour being denied a UK-election win by an SNP surge on 7 May as a simple matter of arithmetic rather than hectoring warnings.

Labour’s big hitters in Scotland, with Gordon Brown and No campaign leader Alistair Darling also making interventions, could well dust down their campaign weaponry from last year’s referendum and parrot a message that Scotland holds the whole UK General Election result in its hands.

But perhaps a simple slogan that’s repeated day in day out can hit home with voters, so expect Labour election broadcasts specifically aimed at Scots, punting the message of “imagine how you will feel to wake up the day after the election to five more years of the Tories?”

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