Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy speaking in Glasgow on December 15, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Labour starting to turn the tide in Scotland?

For the first time since the referendum, the polls show a swing against the SNP. 

Since the independence referendum, the news from Scotland for Labour has been unremittingly grim. Despite their double-digit defeat, the nationalists moved with remarkable ease to frame the debate that followed. "They had a plan and we didn't," one shadow cabinet minister told me recently. While Nicola Sturgeon seamlessly replaced Alex Salmond as First Minister and SNP leader, Scottish Labour collapsed into crisisA succession of polls gave the nationalists a lead of more than 20 points as Holyrood and Westminster voting intention aligned. The election of Jim Murphy as the party's new leader in December failed to produce any early dividend; Labour appeared on course to lose as many as half of its 40 Scottish seats (not assuming a uniform swing). 

But last weekend brought rare cause for hope. A new survey by Panelbase (the nationalists' pollster of choice) put the SNP's lead down from 17 points to 10 (41-31) - its smallest advantage for three months. Another poll, conducted by Survation for the Daily Record, showed the party's lead falling from 24 points to 20 (46-26). To be sure, these are merely two snapshots and the SNP's lead remains of a level that would have been considered remarkable in the pre-referendum era. But they are the first indication that the nationalists' advance may not be inexorable. Labour has long hoped to win back the "red nats" by framing the general election as a straight choice between a Labour government or a Conservative one. As a shadow cabinet minister observed to me, by ruling out any deal with the Tories in a hung parliament, but refusing to do so in the case of Labour, the SNP has implicitly conceded that the latter is superior to the former. 

There are some signs that the collapse in the price of oil - to the point where it may become unprofitable for North Sea firms to produce - has harmed the nationalists' cause. The Panelbase poll found that 22 per cent of SNP supporters believe that the crisis has weakened the case for independence. The party's traditional claim that Scotland's black gold would compensate for its inferior fiscal position is even less persuasive than before. 

But Labour figures make no attempt to diminish the scale of the task that remains. One Scottish Labour MP told me: "The emotional fallout from the referendum is as damaging for us as the poll tax was for the Tories in the 1980s." The sight of Labour fighting alongside Conservatives in defence of the Union is one that some of its traditional supporters will not forgive or forget. Murphy is regarded by most in the party as having performed exceptionally since becoming leader, bringing much-needed competence and vigour to the party. But Labour MPs believe, in the words of one that, that "our biggest opponent is time". With only a few months to reverse the SNP's huge advance, most would settle for a dozen losses. Against this, one SNP source told me that the party stood to gain a minimum of six from Labour and a maximum of 17, with the former more likely. The nationalists are more optimistic in the case of the Liberal Democrats, They believe they can win 10-11 Lib Dem seats if just a quarter of the party's 2010 vote swings its way (a result that would leave just Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael standing). 

All agree, however, that Labour will lose MPs in Scotland, an area where it had previously hoped to make gains (or at least hold its 2010 level). In a close election, the danger remains that the party's hopes of victory could die in the country where it was born. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war