CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning’s papers.

1. Gove's claim to be "freeing" schools is a cloak for more control from the centre (Guardian)

This dreary abuse of local democracy was tried by Thatcher and Blair. But, says Simon Jenkins, all people want is fair access to a good school nearby.

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2. And so, Cameron's first victims are . . . (Independent)

Johann Hari argues that the Tories' cuts target the unemployed, poor kids, children in care, the elderly, the disabled and any feeble little steps we were making towards a low-carbon economy.

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3. Useless, jobless men -- the social blight of our age (Times)

Camilla Cavendish discusses the culture of dependency on benefits, arguing that the welfare system has produced an emasculated generation that can find neither work nor wife. Welfare has entrenched poverty.

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4. Spare Britain the policy hairshirt (Financial Times)

The OECD says the only big risk is a loss of fiscal and monetary "credibility". It is not, says Martin Wolf. The far greater risk is that the economy flounders for years. If that happened, eliminating the deficit would be very hard.

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5. Labour will be tempted. But this is no way to break the coalition (Guardian)

Labour will soon face a historic choice on the electoral reform vote, says Martin Kettle. The party does not have a good record of advancing its own strategic interests, but its wisest strategy will be to back the Yes campaign.

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6. Bad laws are putting prostitutes' lives in danger (Times)

Alan White argues that it is impossible to stop sex being sold on the street, so we must protect those who do it. Legalisation is not necessarily the solution to addicted street-workers, but better police practice might be.

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7. Merkel has joined Thatcher in Europe's corner shop (Financial Times)

If Germany succumbs fully to the British disease of calculating the value of European Union membership on an abacus, the whole project is doomed, warns Philip Stephens.

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8. North Korea -- the great unknown (Independent)

The world's last Stalinist regime is once again on the brink of conflict. What does North Korea hope to achieve by such posturing? We just can't know, says Rupert Cornwell.

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9. The real cost of cheap oil (Guardian)

John Vidal points out that the Gulf disaster is unusual only for having happened so near the US. Elsewhere, Big Oil rarely cleans up its mess. More than anything else, the industry dreads being made fully accountable to developing countries for the damage it has wreaked.

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10. BP shows the need for a rethink of regulation (Financial Times)

One thing is certain, writes David Scheffer: corporate self-regulation and public oversight have failed. We need to rethink how commercial firms operate in such a fragile world.

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How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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