Tom Peterkin: Murphy’s calculations may or may not, add up

The announcement by Jim Murphy attracted criticism from both right and left, from outwith his party and within. Picture: John Devlin
The announcement by Jim Murphy attracted criticism from both right and left, from outwith his party and within. Picture: John Devlin
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Jim Murphy has made a pretty good fist of hogging the political agenda since he was elected as Scottish Labour leader.

He has had a few things in his favour. As a leader he is still in his honeymoon period and as a former UK Cabinet member he is seen as a credible figure – perhaps not something his predecessor Johann Lamont was always seen as.

He also has a knack for eye-catching publicity – hence his announcement that he intends to use mansion tax money raised in London to pay for 1,000 Scottish nurses.

If, as everyone suspects, this was an attempt to gain acres of newsprint in publicity, Murphy has succeeded in spades.

Yesterday David Cameron was the latest to weigh in on Murphy’s wizard wheeze. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron joined the current London Mayor Boris Johnson and Labour’s mayoral candidate Diane Abbott in expressing concern about Londoners being squeezed to subsidise Scotland. For an announcement by a Scottish Labour leader to attract criticism from both right and left, from outwith his party and within, is quite an achievement.

As an astute tactician, Murphy will have seen this coming and has calculated that the adverse reaction from down south can work to his advantage. To Murphy, the fact that he made his announcement without the say-so of Ed Miliband plays into the notion that he is a politician who will stand up for Scotland without having to answer to the UK party. Murphy must hope that sort of approach will win back the traditional Labour voters who were persuaded to vote Yes in September.

Then there is the paradox that while emphasising his own autonomy, his announcement also plays into Labour’s narrative that Scotland is best served by pooling resources and sharing wealth across the UK.

In that regard, it is a pretty nifty piece of politics – especially when one considers the underlying truth that a Scottish Government is perfectly entitled to spend its block grant from the UK Treasury however it chooses.

Murphy is predicting that cash raised from Labour’s plans for a levy on homes worth more than £2 million would be used for public spending by UK government departments – a move that would see Scottish cash go up under the Barnett Formula, the mechanism that determines the block grant.

But by framing his intentions in provocative language, Murphy is attempting to portray himself as a defender of Scottish interests by pursuing an agenda that risks creating divisions with England and rows over the largesse of Barnett. He must feel it is a risk worth taking. Time will tell.