The only one of the three main Westminster parties that can confidently take the fight to the SNP is Labour. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are now too toxic to do so. North of the border, the Tories have just one seat to Labour's 41, while Nick Clegg's party will be lucky to have many more after May 2015 (psephologist Lewis Baston recently predicted that they would lose 10 of their 11 Scottish constituencies).
For Ed Miliband, a No vote in the independence referendum is crucial, not just to preserving Labour's Scottish MPs (without whom it would become far harder to govern), but also to reinforcing his argument that a unified, social democratic Britain can be built. Ahead of the vote in September, he has travelled with the shadow cabinet to Glasgow today, as part of two days of campaigning across Scotland - and has brought a new policy along.
In his speech in Motherwell, he will announce Labour's plans to end the use of "exploitative" zero-hours contracts (which offer no guaranteed work and require workers to be permanently on-call) following the conclusion of an independent review by Norman Pickavance, a former director of Human Resources at Morrisons. He will promise to legislate to ensure that the estimated one million people (3.1 per cent of the workforce) on the contracts are offered:
- The right to demand a fixed-hours contract when they have worked regular hours over six months with the same employer.
- The right to receive a fixed-hours contract automatically when they have worked regular hours over a year - unless they decide to opt out.
- Protection from employers forcing them to be available at all hours, insisting they cannot work for anyone else, or cancelling shifts at short notice without compensation.
In adopting this stance, Miliband is again smartly positioning Labour to the left of the SNP, which has moved to ban public sector contractors from using the contracts (albeit with some exemptions), but has not announced proposals for the wider private sector. As well as attacking Alex Salmond's party for promising to cut corporation tax by 3p and for refusing to commit to reintroducing the 50p tax rate, he will say:
The reason the SNP has nothing to say about ending the abuse of zero hours contracts is simple: they know that if Scotland left the UK it would harder to end the abuse of zero hours contracts either here or in what is left of the UK.
Once again, this shows the truth: we can best deliver social justice for working families by working together across the UK with a Labour government in Westminster and a Labour government in Holyrood.
But while Miliband has gone further than the SNP and far further than the coalition (which will shortly publish its response to Vince Cable's consultation) is likely to go, it's worth noting that Labour's policy doesn't just stop short of the outright ban that some in the party, such as Andy Burnham, would like to see, but actually represents a watered down version of previous proposals.
Back in September, when Miliband addressed the TUC conference, Labour briefed that anyone working for a single employer for more than 12 weeks on a zero-hours contract would be given the automatic right to a full-time contract based on the average time worked over that period. Yet that period has now been extended to 12 months. In other words, workers will now need to wait four times as long for fair treatment. (An additional problem, as the trade unions will be quick to note, is that employers will simply dismiss workers ahead of the deadline before later rehiring them.)
No doubt Pickavance's review concluded that the previous proposals would unreasonably limit employers' flexibility. But if so, Miliband should explain why the rights of the bosses have trumped the rights of the workers.
Update: A Labour source points out to me that "our original press release back in September, announcing the principles of our proposals and the Pickavance review, didn't actually include the 12 week element, so I wouldn't necessarily see today's announcement as a climb down." He added that "what is announced today goes far further than the government consultation."