The first full week of 2015 doesn’t just mark the end of the festive holidays, but the beginning of a four month General Election campaign. While these timescales are peanuts compared to the three year plus referendum campaign, it is still a more protracted period than the UK is accustomed to dealing with.
For Scottish Labour, having just emerged from the referendum and a leadership campaign, there have been mere weeks to re-energise themselves under Jim Murphy. With four months to go and trailing the SNP in national polling by 20 points, the challenge in front of Murphy is not for the weak of heart.
While there is an on-going argument about national polling vs the sheer size of the Labour majorities in Scotland, the expectation at the moment is that the SNP will see strong gains – a doubling of their Westminster seats would be a victory.
To tackle this potential crisis, Murphy has to accomplish a number of things. Firstly, try and bring back those Labour voters who went with Yes in the referendum. Secondly to combat claims that Labour in Scotland is merely a “branch” office to the UK Party. And thirdly to compete with the SNP in that centre left ground which has been so fertile to both parties.
Not an easy task to accomplish in the next four months. But Murphy has hit the ground running this week with a pledge which sought to tackle all three issues at the same time.
His announcement that Scottish Labour would use the money derived from a UK-wide “mansion tax” proposed by Labour, and distributed via the Barnett formula, to fund 1,000 new nurses in Scotland.
Murphy went on to say that the bulk of this money would come from South England, and drew examples between that and oil and gas revenues going to the rest of the UK. It was also on the proviso (and perhaps ambitious) proviso that Labour would win in both 2015 and 2016.
The fallout came not just from the Conservative Party, with London Mayor Boris Johnston leading the charge, but potential Labour mayoral candidate Diane Abbot, who accused Murphy of “unscrupulous” behaviour and buying Scottish votes with English money.
While the media enjoyed seeing a little bit of internal party conflict, and perhaps some misinterpretation what exactly the Barnett formula is, the reaction will likely have accomplished exactly what Murphy set out to do.
With both London Labour and the Conservatives attacking him, he managed in one clean swoop to present himself as his own man, not bound by the UK wide party system, and presenting a more radical Labour vision to the public, which may not go down well with the wider centralist media. The internal Labour fight will have limited damaged. Neither Abbott nor Murphy will get bad local press from being seen to defend their patches. In fact both may likely be privately pleased at the coverage. Whether Miliband would be smiling remains to be seen, with internal concerns that this may embolden other regional leaders to take tougher stands.
The danger of course is that should Scottish Labour go too far left, they will lose those aspirational, middle class voters who have helped to deliver massive Labour majorities from Scotland.
The SNP attacked the announcement, claiming that the sums simply didn’t add up, and pointed out their own record. However due to the fight over the pledge, these retorts were drowned out in the media.
Murphy has never been someone who enjoys being on the defensive, and this has been clearly seen this week. The nurse’s announcement represents a step change for Scottish Labour. But the clock is ticking and there is a still a mountain to climb.