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Leading questions for Labour and the battle for a No vote

Within the space of days, two opinion polls of voting intentions for the 2015 UK elections agree:

Ed Miliband's Labour have a 5% advantage. For a party humbled in 2010, this is no tragedy. It is not much of a triumph, either.

Make that point and sage observers will tell you to stop talking nonsense. A 5% lead is more than enough to give Labour a handy majority, they say. Clever software and an electoral system that favours Mr Miliband prove the point. Besides, elsewhere in these islands, Ukip - polling between 9% and 12% - is on course to knock the stuffing out of the Tories.

It's a plausible picture, but it comes with a few blemishes. In Scotland, the latter matter more than the former. In these parts there is an argument over whether anyone should vote No in the referendum in hopes of a Labour government. There is also the connected argument over Ed Balls and his future as shadow Chancellor, if any. Should Mr Miliband decide he needs a fresh face Alistair Darling is the obvious candidate. But where would that leave Better Together?

Labour's lead is an odd piece of work if you hold it up to the light. All of the claims made for its solidity are fair enough, as far as they go. But the flaws, the weaknesses, are conspicuous. After his problems in the Autumn Statement debate, Mr Balls is judged to be one weakness. Mr Miliband is certainly another.

In terms of popularity, he lags his party badly. In terms of economic competence, according to a recent ICM poll, he and Mr Balls are far behind David Cameron and George Osborne, by 39% to 23%. This scepticism towards the Labour leadership is being expressed, remember, at a time when 70% of voters claim to have felt no personal benefit from the coalition's vaunted recovery.

Mr Miliband has talked a lot about the cost of living and declining living standards. For self-evident reasons, his claims are accepted widely with next to no argument. Yet Labour, for all its 5% lead, is actually losing ground in the ICM poll while the Tories gather support. An electorate under severe economic pressure is hardly flocking to the two Eds.

If not now, when? Mr Osborne's obsessive austerity, with no realistic end in sight, ought to be making his government anathema to voters. Instead, the Chancellor seems to believe the worst might be behind him, even if victims of his policies disagree. There is a long road ahead to the next UK elections. Where is the good (or bad) news supposed to come from to sustain Mr Miliband?

Ukip is one answer. Nigel Farage and his motley crew refuse to go away and this singular fact bothers a lot of Tories for reasons that are both self-interested and philosophical. Some think they have had their political clothes stolen. Most foresee carnage in the heartlands even if Ukip's support falls to half its current level. Mr Miliband's lifeline would seem to be secure.

It's an odd notion, though, to claim Labour can be confident just because of internecine warfare on the right. It will be strange indeed if Scottish Labour bases its hopes on the machinations of a faction that has no relevance to politics in Scotland. What's the unspeakable slogan? Vote No and Get Labour if Farage Does His Job?

In the context of the referendum itself, that kind of thinking invites familiar conclusions. Scotland is to have a government in London born of an argument that is, yet again, distinctively English? Some of us assert that's why a referendum is needed to begin with.

But hold on, say those sage observers. Mr Miliband can win his heart's desire, no problem, just with his precious 5%. The electoral calculus says 3% will do, given the quirks in the Westminster system. Will that be true a year from now? Will Labour get through the Scottish referendum by persuading its traditional vote to play a slim percentage game? A narrow advantage buys a lot of rhetorical questions.

Then there is the problem of Mr Balls. He said at the weekend he "couldn't give a toss" about poor reviews for his performance in responding to Mr Osborne's Autumn Statement. The defiance was revealing. The Shadow Chancellor is also unmoved, he insists, by all the talk surrounding Mr Darling. But he might not have explored every sub-plot.

Why did unnamed "senior" Tories start to mutter about Mr Darling's performance as the chair of Better Together when polls continue to show widespread support for his efforts? What profit was there in malign gossip about a "comatose" figure with "no experience"? It was hardly calculated to enhance Unionist efforts in the referendum argument.

You could conclude, first, that those Tories don't much care about what happens in Scotland. They might even be the kind of people recently condemned by Lord Forsyth for "secretly" hankering for a Yes vote and a Westminster free of Scots. Patently, however, they were keen to do Mr Darling damage. In other words, they don't want to see him replace Mr Balls as the Chancellor's adversary.

That kind of thinking makes a limited kind of sense. Mr Darling emerged with credit from the financial crisis; few can say the same. Unlike Mr Balls, he does not have to purge himself because of any links to Gordon Brown's tarnished regime. Mr Darling has set that record straight, with conviction, in his autobiographical writings. He would be an asset to Mr Miliband.

But it is no small thing to dump a Shadow Chancellor. The obvious reaction would be the appointment was a big mistake to begin with, or that it was made under duress by a weak leader. The public trust placed in Mr Darling, substantial though it is, wouldn't be enough to still every critic.

That's just the London view. What about the country with a referendum to negotiate? Unless Mr Darling attempted to remain in charge of Better Together - hardly a plausible idea - voters might get notions about the importance attached to Scotland by the Labour leadership. And who would replace the former chancellor in the No campaign?

Two issues are fast coming together. One is simple: if Labour's UK chances seem to recede, Better Together will pay a price. The prospect of a Tory government or another coalition will concentrate minds. Then there is the simple issue of Scotland's place in the Westminster scheme of things. A fate decided by Farage? A fate dependent on Mr Miliband's shadow Cabinet requirements? These are not inspirational propositions.

Besides, hope for a Labour government and you hope for what, exactly? In essence, this: a party that has committed itself to the spending limits laid down, arbitrarily and unsuccessfully, by Mr Osborne.

While people across these islands struggle to get by, faith in Labour's ability to manage the economy is slight indeed. It is no basis for a general election triumph.

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