Miliband: Change with a hint of disdain

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Media captionLabour leader Ed Miliband calls on the electorate to vote Labour to "give David Cameron his marching orders"

From Ed Miliband at the Scottish Labour conference in Edinburgh, a message of contempt, change and disdain.

The contempt was aimed at the Conservatives in the UK government - with just a brief nod to the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Miliband seems to be encouraged, almost physically, by David Cameron's apparent disinclination to debate with him head to head on the telly.

His satirical reflections fell somewhat short of Swiftian bite - but they were delivered with evident verve and were well received in the hall. Plainly, he feels this is a Tory weak point and he intends to attack.

The change message was the core of his address: that Labour offered an alternative UK government and, he argued, an alternative vision too, one that addressed the concerns of the disadvantaged.

And the disdain? That was reserved for the SNP. Quite deliberately, Mr Miliband scarcely mentioned the party that forms the Scottish government and, according to the polls, looks set to take a fair number of Labour seats in Scotland.

Broad view

In precise terms, he declined to rise to the repeated challenge from the Tories that Labour should explicitly rule out a coalition or a post-election agreement with the SNP.

Why so? Three reasons. One, he dislikes responding to what he believes is a Tory tactic. The Tories have only one seat to lose in Scotland, by contrast with Labour. It is in Conservative interests to posit an SNP advance in Scotland while, simultaneously, hoping to depict themselves as defending English interests.

Two, he takes the broad view that it is better to advocate your own party's policies, hoping for a majority, than to countenance the prospect of falling short.

And, three, there is the more nuanced view that people in Scotland, post referendum, may still be partly in a mood of wanting all their politicians to coalesce intellectually in the interests of Scotland, that damning co-operation bluntly and in advance might be tactically inept.

So, for now, the focus is primarily upon the Tories, inviting voters to infer that therein lies the true and only contest of 7 May.

'No way, no how'

It should be said that this view is not universally held within the party. I have spoken to MPs who believe that it would clarify matters with their potential voters if Mr Miliband and Mr Murphy said "no way, no how" to an agreement in the Commons with the SNP after the election.

But the leadership position - which also has support from within the Westminster back benches - is that Labour should not stray at all onto the somewhat swampy territory of cross-party deals, even to rule them out.

Mr Murphy, however, makes one exception. In a webcast interview with me, he rules out utterly and completely any talk of a Grand Coalition with the Tories to prevent the SNP from gaining influence. His dismissal is complete and robust.

Watch the interview to find out his views on other possible pacts - where he restates the opinion that it would be unwise and premature to comment.


Later, conference heard from Jim Murphy in his first keynote speech as leader. It was intriguing - and, of course planned - that, while Ed Miliband stood at a podium, Mr Murphy ambled around the stage, speaking without notes.

The Murphy tone was deliberately anecdotal: his childhood, his upbringing in Apartheid South Africa, his return to Scotland. His objective was to relate that to fundamental values of social justice.

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Media captionJim Murphy says Scottish Labour will create a "future fund" of £1,600 for teenagers not in education

And the wider aim? To suggest that he is entirely at ease with Scottish values, contrary to the arguments advanced by his critics - including some within the Labour Party and the union movement.

More generally, it was a values-based speech. His announcements - on education support - were aimed at aiding those from the most disadvantaged sectors of society. Suggesting, in short, that social justice can be achieved by his party within Scotland but also across the wider UK.

That same duality was evident in the change in the party's constitution, the key element of which was endorsed in a card vote by 69% to 31%.

Labour is now committed to "work for the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland." Some in the Left argued against that change, noting that their banner was the Red Flag, not the Saltire; that patriotism had historically been used to quell working class ambitions by an appeal to national unity, particularly during wartime.

But key speakers from the Left in the debate argued that the change was positive as long as Labour sustained policies and values which were directed at social equality.

The change, of course, is driven by external factors: by a sense that the people of Scotland want politicians who will speak up for Scotland - to varying degrees, according to taste. And, politically, by the challenge posed in that regard by the SNP.

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