Can he achieve this remarkable political recovery? I have never doubted it; partly because I have always thought that the obituaries of Scottish Labour were more often than not wishful thinking from Nationalists trying to deflect attention from the reasons for their own political rejection. In addition, Labour’s poor poll ratings were established in an atmosphere where the party had deserted the battlefield as it addressed the shortcomings that had led to somewhere near 130,000 of its voters choosing to say Yes to independence.
And so, by the first weekend after the festive holidays, we now see the beginnings of what Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale, no doubt advised by Murphy’s new chief of staff John McTernan, have in store to win back the hearts and minds of voters who deserted the party in the referendum – and could do so again in the General Election. Knowing the work rate and single-mindedness of Murphy and McTernan, I do not expect the pace to let up before 7 May; indeed, they will already have mapped out an action plan with key dates for the delivery of party reforms, policy announcements and speeches that wrong-foot the SNP.
One need look no further than Murphy’s claim to deliver 1,000 extra nurses in Scotland paid for by the Mansion Tax that, if it is ever introduced, will take most of its revenue from London. The announcement of the policy was vintage Murphy; firstly, by implication it bounced the electorate into accepting the idea that the NHS in Scotland is in such a crisis under SNP management that it needs 1,000 additional nurses.
Why not 239 nurses or 753 or 1,201? The number is about grabbing headlines, not analysing what is really going wrong with the NHS, which from my experience of hearing many accounts and reading many reports in Holyrood’s public audit committee, is not always the same in different parts of Scotland.
Nevertheless, we can now expect a bidding war between parties for more nurses that, by definition, gives Labour the credit for identifying this particular “need”.
Secondly, the policy promotes a social democratic benefit of remaining in the United Kingdom, that of redistributing wealth across the country, in this case from London property owners to Scottish citizens who have cause to use NHS hospitals. This is a policy that the SNP cannot replicate, for if it is to fund 1,000 more nurses, it must find the money elsewhere as the Mansion Tax will have little impact in Scotland – which is why in an independent Scotland it would probably never have seen the light of day.
We can expect more examples extolling the benefits of the United Kingdom from a left-of-centre perspective – something that was in relatively short supply during the referendum. Another example of this theme is Murphy’s advocacy of a 50p tax rate for top earners that would have resulted in a talent-drain to England if introduced in an independent Scotland but if applied across the UK would operate under a level playing field and a far larger tax base.
This neatly accentuates the third tactical benefit of the 1,000 nurses policy, namely the reality that it is easier to introduce socialist policies across the UK as a whole than in Scotland alone – where to do so might put Scotland’s economy at competitive disadvantage.
Murphy and his coterie know that to regain lost ground he must re-establish Scottish Labour as a party of social justice in the minds of the electorate – which these days appears to mean little else than taxing the wealthy and successful and providing universal benefits in money or kind. Talk of Labour establishing a meritocratic society (which offers its own type of social justice), where people are encouraged to better themselves and thus bring benefits to the whole of society, are for another time.
Fourthly, the policy opened up the possibility of rows with not just Tory politicians such as the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, but also with his aspiring Labour replacements like Diane Abbott. Brilliant! There are few things more helpful to a Scottish politician of any party seeking to demonstrate independence of mind and action than having a row with an English-based colleague in the same party. Having developed his political acumen in Westminster, do not be surprised if Murphy has more rows with erstwhile colleagues as he bangs the table or gets on his Irn-Bru box saying how he is putting Scotland first.
Much attention was given at the weekend to Murphy appealing to Yes voters by promoting a new Scottish Labour constitution that will have the obligatory one-day conference to give it a seal of approval. Labour’s denial of unionism as being a central tenet of its existence is being promoted as opening the door for Yes voters with Labour inclinations to return to the fold or join it for the first time in denying the Conservatives a new mandate. This is all about positioning, for what we have witnessed in recent months can no longer be denied – that in an independent Scotland the SNP would seek to replace Labour, not dissolve itself and see its members shift to new truly Scottish versions of the existing unionist parties.
For Labour as we know it to exist, therefore, means the Union must continue to exist. Scottish Labour’s internal reforms will be meaningless if they do not help deliver meaningful policy outcomes that, like the 1,000 nurses idea, play to its core supporters’ hopes and fears. Dwelling on clause-four constitutional change that, in the main, is another publicity stunt will become less important than marginalising Ed Miliband (by even falling out with him) and building up Murphy’s New Model Party as Scotland’s voice demanding and delivering whatever he chooses to define as social justice. The new year just got more interesting.