Ian Swanson: How Jim Murphy walked into a storm

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has caused a stir. Picture: John Devlin
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has caused a stir. Picture: John Devlin
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JIM Murphy may have been in the job less than a month, but he has already shown he knows how to pick a fight.

The new Scottish Labour leader’s pledge to use revenue from the proposed UK-wide mansion tax to fund 1000 new nurses north of the Border provoked howls of protest not only from London’s Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson but also from key figures in his own party.

Mr Johnson accused him of “divisive tactics”, trying to “mug” Londoners and being “fiscally vindictive to the south-east in order to bribe Scots to vote Labour”.

London Labour MP Diane Abbott, who wants to run for mayor of the UK capital, said: “Jim Murphy can’t surely mean he is going to expropriate money from Londoners to win an election in Scotland.”

As commentators have been quick to point out, this is exactly what Mr Murphy was hoping for.

For a man eager to shed his Blairite reputation and prove he is not beholden to Westminster or his party’s UK leadership, what could be better than finding himself at odds with a “Tory toff” and Labour’s leading lights in London?

The vast majority of the money raised by the mansion tax – which would apply to properties worth more than £2 million – would come from London and south-east England.

Ed Miliband plans to increase health spending by £2.5 billion through the new tax – and as a result Scotland would be in line for an extra £250m under the Barnett formula.

Mr Murphy argues that using Scotland’s share of the mansion tax to pay for more nurses demonstrates the benefits of maintaining a UK-wide tax base.

It is quite a while since a Scottish Labour leader was in the headlines as the result of successfully taking the initiative on an issue and provoking a debate which works to his or her advantage.

But even as he establishes his own credentials in standing up for 
Scotland, Mr Murphy could be sowing trouble for the future.

Having fought last year’s referendum campaign boasting of the advantages of staying in the UK, it is perfectly reasonable for him to argue that Scotland is entitled to its share of the cash from a new UK-wide tax.

But with only 0.3 per cent of all £2m-plus homes located north of the Border, it is not surprising that people in England might feel their money is being unfairly purloined.

Scotland’s mansion tax windfall would not represent any change in the system which has existed for years. But Mr Murphy’s speech – in which he hailed the new tax as “a win-win for Scotland” – could be seen as unnecessarily provocative.

English discontent, already being stirred up over “English votes for English laws”, risks being further fuelled by resentment among voters south of the Border over the way Scotland seems to gain from a mainly English tax. That could easily put more pressure on the UK government to scrap the Barnett formula, which would mean a reduction in the money coming to Scotland from Westminster.

And ultimately, Mr Murphy could find that a carefully calculated speech, which seemed a good idea at the time, plays into the hands of both Tories unhappy about Scotland doing so well and Scottish Nationalists keen to exploit any antagonism.

The man who campaigned so eagerly against independence could end up helping his opponents advance towards their prize.