Ian Swanson: No clear leader in election race

Labout had hoped Jim Murphy's arrival in Scotland would give the party a boost. Picture: Neil Hanna
Labout had hoped Jim Murphy's arrival in Scotland would give the party a boost. Picture: Neil Hanna
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LABOUR has too often seemed complacent about its position in Scotland – even after it lost power at Holyrood nearly eight years ago.

After decades as the dominant political force north of the border, the party has found it difficult to adjust.

The polls do not offer David Cameron any more comfort than Ed Miliband.”

But with the general election just nine weeks away and polls showing the SNP poised to take many once-safe Labour seats in Scotland, that complacency has gone.

“If the election was tomorrow, we’d all be out,” says one MP. Others confess they had expected the nationalists’ post-referendum momentum to have faded by now. They try not to be too downcast but admit they need “a game-changer”.

UK-wide polls have Labour and the Tories more or less neck and neck, with one edging ahead, then falling behind again. But Labour politicians in Scotland know a poor performance here could be enough to deprive Ed Miliband of the keys to Number Ten.

They had hoped the arrival of Jim Murphy as new Scottish Labour leader might have turned their fortunes around so they could go into the party’s one-day spring gathering at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Saturday in an upbeat mood, but his energetic first couple of months at the helm seem to have had little effect so far.

The recent Lord Ashcroft poll in selected Scottish constituencies found a staggering swing to the SNP in Labour-held constituencies of 25.4 per cent, which was projected to mean Labour losing 35 of its current 41 MPs here. It may be that voters have already made up their minds about where they are going to put their cross on May 7 and are not going to change their view.

But if people are still prepared to listen to the debate, it may not all be doom and gloom for Labour.

Despite persistent negative coverage, Ed Miliband has been making strong arguments against tax avoidance, promising to ban MPs from taking second jobs and proposing a doubling of paternity leave – all issues which should win support.

He has moved the party away from the Blairite approach and identified tackling the problem of inequality as his key theme.

The party has a set of well-established promises, ranging from a freeze on fuel prices to a mansion tax. And despite the apparent economic recovery, which ought to help the Tories, the reality is that many ordinary people are not seeing the effects.

Critics claim Ed Miliband does not look like a prime minister, but the same has been said of many previous opposition leaders who ended up in Downing Street. The Tories approach the election eager to be rid of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, hoping to be elected to govern in their own right. But the polls do not offer David Cameron any more comfort than Ed Miliband for such ambitions.

The contest now seems to be to come out as the biggest party – a less difficult proposition for either side.

The Tories have just launched a new advertising campaign poster with the slogan “A Recovering Economy – Don’t let Labour wreck it”.

Perhaps sub-consciously, it turns the clock back half a century to the Fifties – that decade of optimism idolised by some Conservatives – and the slogan Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan chose for the 1959 general election: “Life’s Better with the Conservatives – Don’t let Labour ruin it.”

Macmillan won that election comfortably. But whether a similar appeal will work more than 50 years on is another matter.