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Miliband's message may be too little, too late for voters

IT was radio, and therefore sans pictures, but asked about the prospect of a Yes vote in the independence referendum, one had the distinct impression David Cameron was raising the white flag yesterday.

At least as far as his position went, that is.

The Today questioner wanted to know if the Prime Minister would resign if Scotland voted to become independent. The answer came back swift and sure.

"It is very important to say no to that emphatically, for this reason: what is at stake here is not this Prime Minister or that Prime Minister, or this party leader or that party leader. What is at stake is the future of Scotland. It is for Scottish people to decide. Do you want to separate yourself from the UK, or do you want to stay in the UK?"

In short, Mr Cameron has no plans to separate his posterior from the back seat of the prime ministerial Jag if the United Kingdom comes apart on his watch. Losing Scotland might be, in the words of one of his MPs, Sir Edward Leigh, "a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions", but it is clearly not, in the PM's view, a resigning matter.

But then again, is not Mr Cameron yesterday's man already? What does it matter how he will jump? According to Ed Miliband on a visit to Scotland yesterday, there is a new PM on the way. Come May 8, 2015, it will be Ed, Justine and the boys following the Pickfords van into Downing Street, while Sam, Cam and their children head off to the nearest Housing Office (or maybe not).

So there is really no need for Scotland to go anywhere in September. Isn't that a relief? What on Earth was all the fuss about? Well, hang on a mo, Mr Miliband.

While there is usually a faint whiff of the extra-terrestrial about UK party leaders when they visit Scotland, Mr Miliband might as well have greeted voters with a Morkian "Nanu nanu" for all that he seemed at home. And he did not even have a bacon sandwich to blame.

The Labour leader is cursed to look awkward whatever he does. In person, people tend to warm to him, and doubtless he will have left Scotland believing he had done his bit to shore up the Labour vote and ensure it does not wash in an almighty wave over to Yes. But here is the question he should have been pondering. Never mind whether David Cameron will resign in the event of a Yes vote, what will Mr Miliband do? For if Scotland goes it will be Labour, even more than a Tory PM, who will be to blame. It will be Ed wot lost it.

Not, of course, that he reads the situation this way. His visit to Scotland was not a panic measure prompted by the closing of the opinion poll gap, oh dear no. This was a spreading of the good news that the Tories are on their way out. They are losing their MPs, said Mr Miliband, they are defecting, divided and downhearted. One might think that is no way to speak about one's partners in Better Together, but these are strange political times, and becoming even more so by the day.

The first sign of this was the admission by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, in Tuesday's STV debate that a Tory victory in 2015 "isn't looking likely". It is known that Ms Davidson, who helped Better Together win a penalty shoot-out for charity this week, is the possessor of a mean right foot, but one did not expect her to aim straight for her party's General Election prospects in quite such a breathtaking manner.

Yet there is method in this madness, apparently. In playing down the chance of another Tory government at Westminster, Ms Davidson wants Scottish Labour voters to feel relaxed about voting No. Mr Cameron says he is going nowhere, whatever the outcome in September, so it is no good voting Yes, or staying at home, to spite him. The Scottish Labour patient must be very poorly indeed if the Tory men and women in white coats are rushing to its aid in such ways.

The Labour leadership has been ridiculously and chronically slow on the uptake during this referendum campaign. Heaven knows why. Being a contest between two entrenched positions, the battle was always going to be decided by the floating voters in the middle, and few groups have felt more adrift than Scottish Labour supporters in recent years. The disappointment has become generational. Put it down to Iraq and Blair. Ascribe it to the abject failure to tackle inequality in Britain despite 13 years in power. Blame it on underwhelming personalities, lacklustre leadership, or a persistent lack of any clear direction. But all of it can be filed under one heading: Labour has taken its Scottish voters for granted.

Having made this mistake for so long, the party simply could not help itself when it came to the referendum. And the rot goes all the way up and sideways. What else, other than complacency, explains Alistair Darling, the leader of Better Together and a politician meant to be among the big tartan beasts, turning up to a live television debate without a list of additional powers his side could offer voters?

But cometh the late hour, cometh the man with a five-point plan (a tactic straight from the New Labour playbook if ever there was one). Mr Miliband yesterday offered Scots a contract. Stick with Labour, vote No, and when he becomes Prime Minister next year he will freeze energy bills; increase the minimum wage; introduce new lower and higher tax rates; use the money from a bankers' bonus tax to get young people into jobs; and bin the bedroom tax. Nothing about ending austerity and increasing spending. That ship, as his Shadow Chancellor has made clear, has sailed.

It is a practical, Steady Eddie kind of list, designed to appeal to level-headed Scottish voters, folk who have always instinctively regarded politicians' grand promises with suspicion, and it is fine as far as it goes. But a touch of humility, and an appeal to Scottish Labour voters' sense of solidarity with disadvantaged people across the UK, would not have gone amiss. And where was the fire in the Miliband belly, the old-time Labour religion that would once have roused the faithful? Existing Labour, as opposed to New Labour or Old Labour, does not do that kind of religion any more.

More is the pity, because a revival in the party's vote needs a revivalist message. Mr Miliband has more to worry about, however, than a lack of fervour. There is also a question of belief. Do Scottish Labour voters believe he can win the 2015 General Election and deliver on his promises? The polls are certainly not offering any guarantee. Westminster village lore has it that the Labour leader needs just 35 per cent of the UK vote to change his address to Downing Street, and with a split in the Tory vote and a collapse in LibDem support, he will manage it.

Dare Scottish Labour voters believe again? In Ed, if not in God, will they trust? Mr Miliband should start praying.

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