Better Together campaign head and former chancellor Alistair Darling. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Darling's rattled performance will increase No campaign anxieties

Better Together head gives tetchy interview after new Scottish independence poll confirms the gap has narrowed to just five points.

As a politician, Alistair Darling is renowned for his calm and reassuring manner (most famously during the financial crisis). But interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning on Scottish independence, he appeared distinctly rattled. As I tweeted during the programme, he sounded like an embattled football manger giving a post-match interview after a bad result.

The bad result, in this case, was a new Panelbase poll (commissioned by pro-independence website Wings over Scotland) putting the Yes vote up four points to 41 per cent, the joint-highest level of support recorded since the campaign began, and the No vote up one to 46 per cent. When the "don't knows" are stripped out, the gap stands at 53-47.

Darling responded by pointing out that Panelbase surveys traditionally favour the No campaign and that "[if] you look at the change from this month to last month, it hasn’t changed one bit. Our lead is exactly the same." This is true (the gap stood at 53-47 in Panelbase's previous poll), but it also means that the earlier survey can't be dismissed as an outlier. With more than five months to go, the No side's lead really has narrowed from 12 points (the highest lead recorded by Panelbase) to just six. Darling also rightly noted that "every single poll conducted this year and last year as well shows us with a consistent lead". But given Alex Salmond's reputation as a strong finisher, this will be of little comfort to many on the Unionist side.

I expect that Darling's tetchy performance, which may have been an attempt to offer some much-demanded passion, will lead to further briefing against him. The Tories, who were warned by Lynton Crosby at the end of last year that the Yes campaign was on course for victory, increasingly fear that his prophecy will be fulfilled.

If the No side is to win, and to win convincingly, one figure who will need to play a bigger role than at present is Gordon Brown. Brown is one of the few Unionist politicians that Salmond concedes poses a threat to the nationalists. He is significantly more popular in Scotland than he is south of the border and has a strong connection with the working class swing voters that the SNP hopes will break for the Yes side in September. At the 2010 general election, while Labour's vote fell by 6.2 per cent across the UK, it rose by 2.5 per cent in Scotland and the party held onto all 41 of its seats. This was thanks in no small part to Brown, whose own constituency vote rose by 6.4 per cent.

His decision not to join the cross-party Better Together campaign, in favour of working with the United with Labour group, also makes it imposssible for Salmond to dismiss him as a Tory proxy. More than anything else, he is capable of displaying the authentic passion that so many are demanding from the No campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Angela Rayner - from teenage mum to the woman who could unify Labour

Corbyn-supporting Rayner mentioned Tony Blair in her speech. 

For those at the Labour party conference feeling pessimistic this September, Angela Rayner’s speech on education may be a rare moment of hope. 

Not only did the shadow education secretary capitalise on one of the few issues uniting the party – opposition to grammar schools – and chart a return to left-wing policies, but she did so while paying tribute to the New Labour legacy. 

Rayner grew up on a Stockport council estate, raised by a mother who could not read nor write. She was, she reminded conference, someone who left school a no-hoper. 

"I left school at 16 pregnant and with no qualifications. Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people. The direction of my life was already set.

"But something happened. Labour's Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop."

Rayner has shown complete loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer, taking two briefs in the depopulated shadow cabinet and speaking at his campaign events.

Nevertheless, as someone who practically benefited from Labour’s policies during its time in government, she is unapologetic about its legacy. She even mentioned the unmentionable, declaring: “Tony Blair talked about education, education, education. Theresa May wants segregation, segregation, segregation.”

As for Rayner's policies, a certain amount of realism underpins her rhetoric. She wants to bring back maintenance grants for low-income students, and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for those in further education. 

But she is not just offering a sop to the middle class. A new childcare taskforce will focus on early education, which she describes as “the most effective drivers of social mobility”. 

Rayner pledged to “put as much effort into expanding, technical, vocational education and meaningful apprenticeships, as we did with higher education”. She declared: "The snobbery about vocational education must end."

Tory critics have questioned the ability of a woman who left school at 16 to be an education secretary, Rayner acknowledged. “I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life,” she said. It could have sounded trite, but her speech delivered the goods. Perhaps she will soon earn her PhD in political instincts too.