Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy knows he faces the biggest political challenge of his career. Current opinion polls suggest the 41 Scottish seats at Westminster that his party holds could be reduced to as few as ten in May’s general election, while the SNP might end up holding as many as 45 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies.
To prevent that happening, his speech in Edinburgh yesterday shows that he has learned one big lesson from last September’s referendum – the future of the NHS is close to voters’ hearts. It was when the Yes campaign started arguing that the health service under the Conservatives was liable to be dismantled and privatised that the No campaign’s lead started to shrivel.
So Mr Murphy has made Scottish Labour’s first election pledge the employment of an additional 1,000 nurses, paid for with the proceeds of UK Labour’s proposed mansion tax. It is not entirely clear how the necessary money would flow into Scottish Government coffers, but it is the pledge of 1,000 more nurses that matters.
He was also keen to recite figures calculated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimating that, under Conservative plans, NHS spending in England is likely to rise by 4 per cent over the next few years, while under the SNP, health expenditure will reduce by 1 per cent over the same period.
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As UK Labour leader Ed Miliband was also attacking the Tories’ stewardship of the NHS , south of the Border, voters can be sure they will hear a lot more of this over the next four months.
Whether Mr Murphy’s campaign on this issue will be as effective as that of Yes, and the SNP’s onslaught last autumn, remains to be seen. It could be, for his speech also contained some good soundbites aimed at reversing the flow of Labour supporters to the SNP, which is where the bulk of the Nationalists’ post-referendum opinion poll boost has come from. Tackling the SNP’s aim of denying Labour an overall majority so that concessions can be wrested from a Labour minority government, he argued it was exactly the same SNP strategy as in 2010, which put David Cameron in Downing Street.
That claim is somewhat undermined by the fact that it isn’t supported by electoral arithmetic.
Rather more effective was his claim that this election is not about sending the Tories a message, but sending them packing – why vote for a party that will protest against the Tories instead of voting for a party that can replace them?
Mr Murphy’s task is an uphill one. While his grasp of economics looks a little shaky (the likelihood of extracting as much tax revenue as he estimates from Scottish high earners is remote), he is already demonstrating his effectiveness as a political campaigner.
Nicola Sturgeon may have a stiffer general election contest ahead of her than she thinks.
Cruel reminder of the sea’s power
OFF the north of Scotland, hopes of finding the eight crew members of the coastal cargo vessel Cemfjord, which sank in the Pentland Firth some time late on Friday or early Saturday, have faded.
This tragic loss of life, thankfully, did not occur when the Hoegh Osaka, a deep sea car transporter ship, developed a severe list shortly after leaving Southampton and had to be beached on a sandbank off southern England.
What happened to both ships is, for the moment, a mystery which marine investigators are working hard to solve. Neither of these ships were rustbuckets with dodgy owners, nor do they seem to have had inexperienced crews.
The Cemfjord was built in 1984, but was converted to a cement carrier in 1998 which, assuming it was refitted at the same time, makes it effectively only 17 years old. That it made no distress call suggests it may have been hit by a sudden catastrophic event.
There is a relatively rare phenomenon where waves of a height that ships can easily cope with can combine to produce a kind of superwave which overwhelms the ship, sending thousands of tonnes of water crashing down on it.
The Pentland Firth is a notoriously difficult stretch of water with fast currents even in flat calms and which can turn extremely dangerous when storms with strong winds strike.
Whether it was a victim of freak sea conditions will only be known after the wreckage, in more than 200ft of water, is fully surveyed. Meanwhile, its fate, and that of the Heogh Saka, is a sad reminder that merchant marine transport, on which much of Britain’s trade depends, is still a risky business.
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