WHEN Labour left office in May 2010, the departing Chief Secretary to the Treasury unwisely left a note for his successor.

One says unwisely, because the missive from Liam Byrne to David Laws has been dredged up regularly as an example of when not to make a joke in politics.

"I'm afraid to tell you there is no money," wisecracked Mr Byrne. "Kind regards and good luck!" Though he was quick to stress later that it had been a joke, the quip was a little too close to the bone given the country was indeed boracic.

Loading article content

Still, the note was a nice idea, a friendly gesture. In that spirit, and seeing as some of us will be unavoidably detained elsewhere when Ed Miliband arrives in Glasgow to hold a shadow cabinet meeting today, a welcome note for the Labour leader is in order.

How about the following: "Dear Ed. I'm afraid to tell you goodwill towards Labour is running perilously low. Kind regards and good luck! PS We are also running short on bread and milk, and the oil reserves are questionable too, but those are matters for another day. PPS Isn't David doing well in New York? He is on the television even more than you these days. Anyone would think he was positioning himself as that new (and old) Labour favourite, the king across the water. Anyway, good luck, particularly with those unreconstructed types in the Scottish press."

To be fair, this is not the first time Mr Miliband has ventured north. He was in Perth only last month to address Scottish Labour's spring conference. He is comfortable here, unlike members of the Coalition Government, who arrived and departed for their first Cabinet meeting in Scotland like a raiding party. Perhaps only the SAS could have executed the mission with more haste. Mr Miliband is so at ease in Scotland that in addition to having a Shadow Cabinet meeting in Glasgow he will address a gathering of voters as well. It is perhaps asking too much of the man to stick around to canvas in Sauchiehall Street on Saturday night, but if London strategists thought it would help they would have suggested that too.

Make no mistake: Scotland is on London Labour's mind. Not in an Elvis, always on my mind kind of fashion, but concern is bubbling to the surface, or at least it should be. Indeed, someone ought to be sending a memo this very day to the party's new adviser, former Obama strategist David Axelrod, telling him to forget about the cost-of-living crisis for a second and think about the cost to Labour of losing Scotland. Winning the vote in September might not be in Axe's job description but it should be, for if Labour, as prime movers in the No campaign, do badly then it is hard to imagine a less favourable springboard for the 2015 General Election. Much speculation has surrounded David Cameron's ability to carry on as Tory leader if he loses Scotland, but the stakes are just as high for Mr Miliband. If the prime minister loses Scotland, it will be put down to politics, the legacy of Thatcherism and all that. If Mr Miliband is blamed for losing Scotland, it is personal. Everything about Labour and Scotland is personal, such is the way the nation has supplied the party's leaders, MPs, foot soldiers, votes and values down the years. Labour can win the referendum for the Union, and they can equally lose it. So no pressure there, Ed.

Thus far, playing the Labour card has not worked terribly well for the No campaign. Alistair Darling, installed as the great white-haired, black-eyebrowed hope of Better Together, has suffered from being too downright reasonable for this fight. This is a bare-knuckle contest, not a pistols at 30 paces affair. With criticism of Mr Darling mounting as the poll gap narrows, the party in Scotland has looked to Gordon Brown and Johann Lamont to take the lead. Neither has had much of an impact: Mr Brown because he is yesterday's news; Ms Lamont because the only time she has led the news was for taking part in that disastrous TV debate/stairheid rammie alongside Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader. Now Douglas Alexander MP is being mentioned as the next Labour gladiator out the gate. All hail Maximus Douglas, commander of the armies of the north, former Secretary of State for International Development, he will have his time in the spotlight. Here's hoping he lasts longer in the arena than his predecessors.

Seen from a distance - say, London - it must seem incredible that Labour in Scotland should have come to this not so pretty pass. Such has been the strength of support in Scotland in the past that only an earthquake could have shaken their foundations.

As it turned out, it was a slow motion, subtle kind of quake, playing out over several years, but the result was only too evident when the SNP formed Scotland's first majority government. The laws of Holyrood voting were turned on their head, and Labour in Scotland are still scratching their collective bonce about the precise reasons why.

The party has a vague idea that it was punished for being lazy, for taking the voters for granted, for not doing enough to change lives for the better, but as its performance in the referendum campaign shows, it still does not get it. Scottish Labour are under-performing in the referendum campaign because they are seen as neither Scottish enough nor Labour enough.

Mr Miliband cannot do much about the former. His father's wartime service in Inverkeithing aside, there is no putting a kilt on him. As for the latter, and as in Perth last month, there will doubtless be mentions of everyone and everything from Keir Hardie to the founding of the NHS.

All true, but something more is required, something grander, something that appeals to notions of solidarity and equality, both across borders and among citizens. The kind of ideas that were once woven into the very fabric of Labour in Scotland but came undone as the party courted big business, broke promises to the needy, and failed to pass muster in so many other areas, from having an ethical foreign policy - what a sick joke that turned out to be - to fixing what ails the modern NHS.

At the same time as telling Scotland what Labour can do for it, Mr Miliband needs to bring home what Scotland does for the Union. Call it a hands-across-the-border strategy, call it an appeal to national vanity, but pay tribute to it he must.

Whether audiences will believe the message is another matter, particularly when Labour give every sign of merely tinkering with public spending with a bankers' bonus tax here, and a 50 pence rate there. Scotland, in truth, is fairly scunnered with Labour at the moment and has been for some time. Given that, perhaps the bravest move Mr Miliband could make today is to utter that little five letter word that means so much, sorry, and follow this with "let us start anew". For Scottish Labour to save the Union they must first save themselves.