David Miliband and Murdoch

Could an inquiry into the tycoon's past relationship with Downing Street provide the boost Miliband'

With the latest poll giving Ed Milband a marginal 51-49 lead over his brother, it isn't getting any clearer who is going to become Labour leader in 12 days' time.

What is clear, however, is that the onus is now on David Miliband's campaign to deliver a game-changing moment that will secure his victory.

Accurate polling for this contest is incredibly hard to come by owing to the complexity of the voting system, but the arresting figure from this YouGov/Sunday Times poll is that on first preferences, David leads Ed by four points. Like Harriet Harman before him, if Ed wins this, it's going to be down to the second preferences.

To return to David, and his need to manufacture a defining moment that will swing the contest back in his favour. Just as Ed has increased his emphasis on "moving beyond the New Labour comfort zone" in the past few weeks, David also needs to refine his stance on the Blairite legacy and find a way to appease those who still feel like he should have clarified his position on Iraq earlier in the contest, rather than just attempting to shift the focus of the campaign away from the war.

But an opportunity could be at hand, in the shape of the row over phone-hacking at the News of the World. Matthew Norman, in his media diary column in the Independent today, suggests that David could "clinch it" by pledging to call for an inquiry into the relationship between New Labour and the Murdoch empire.

In his somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, Norman offers various examples of the intimacy between the Blair coterie and News International. But amusing as those vignettes are, I can't help feeling he could be on to something serious here.

There can be no doubt that both Parliament and the public are outraged about the revelations that Andy Coulson, disgraced former editor of the News of the World, now occupies a senior position in Downing Street. Two Parliamentary enquiries and an impassioned series of questions in the House tell their own story. And as my colleague James Macintyre has pointed out, there are deeper issues of the relationship between Murdoch's newspapers and the police to be considered, too.

Perhaps this is just the issue that David Miliband needs to give his campaign that final boost. It enables him to distance himself from Blair and New Labour without really changing his stance on any specific policy issues, while at the same time demonstrating leadership on a contentious issue that has a lot of media traction at the moment. It would also have the added benefit of disarming those New Labour grandees who saw fit to intrude into the contest at the end of last month.

With the contest this close, such a gesture could just make all the difference.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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