At first glimpse, Jim Murphy’s 1000 nurses announcement bears all the hallmarks of canny policy.
It’s bold, makes clear Scottish Labour’s commitment to the NHS, and shifts the focus to the SNP for a counter-offer.
This is not an easy ask for the Nationalists; they do not enjoy access to the kind of resources the British government can lay claim to.
It is a dramatisation of that oft-spouted but little-loved Better Together slogan: We can pool and share resources across the UK.
Here is a policy that would benefit NHS patients in Scotland from the pockets of millionaires from the south east of England. The best of both worlds indeed.
Mr Murphy told party supporters in a speech on Monday: “We will support the NHS and nurses and use the money from a UK mansion tax to fund an additional 1000 NHS nurses in Scotland over and above the SNP plans that we inherit.
“So often in politics we hear from voters that politicians are all the same or from commentators that the differences between parties are marginal. But this is a uniquely Labour pledge for a Labour priority.”
Let me reassure Mr Murphy I am not one of those commentators. I don’t think Labour’s policy on nurses is just the same as the SNP’s. I think it’s bizarre.
Why? Because of these nine words: “over and above the SNP plans that we inherit”. That means, Labour is not just promising 1000 extra nurses; it’s pledging a thousandon top of whatever number the Nationalists recruit.
Pete Wishart, Lord help us, made a good point: “What if we pledge a million, trillion godzillian?”
But there are bigger challenges than an SNP government that decides to go on a recruitment drive on the set of Holby City. In these times of scarcity it is more important than ever to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and direct expenditure to where it is most needed and will be most beneficial. Nurses get all the headlines, and the hunkier doctors, but post-procedural social care is where politicians should focus their attention.
Families of Scots stuck in hospital long after their operation but caught in the bureaucracy and funding nexus between the NHS and their local authority would rather see the £250m go to reforming and streamlining this aspect of health and social care.
Then there’s the raw politics of it all. What happens to Mr Murphy’s pledge if Ed MIliband is forced to ditch the “mansion tax” as part of a coalition deal after the election? What if Mr Miliband wins, implements this tax and a few years later an incoming Tory government scraps it? How will the thousand extra nurses be funded?
And if, as Mr Murphy claims, 95% of the revenue will come from the south east of England, why does he suppose that voters there will accept such a big chunk of their change going north of the border?
That’s the problem with substituting political machismo for spending priorities. It always leaves the politician responsible sounding disingenuous and looking ridiculous. Quite why someone as strategically clued-up as Mr Murphy would make such a slip is not easily discernible. He must be aware that he cannot outflank the SNP on the left; any attempt to do so will prove a fool’s errand.
His job is not to outspend the Nationalists. It’s to offer a distinct, coherent policy agenda with fairness, choice, and opportunity at its heart. This is a task Mr Murphy is more than equal to. It’s time he got on with it.