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Ed Miliband arrived in Scotland proclaiming he would be Britain’s next prime minister, but left facing questions about whether he could be forced to resign as Labour leader if the Scots voted for independence.
“This is not about one individual – this is a big decision for Scotland,” said Mr Miliband, parrying the question. But the independence referendum is Labour’s to lose and his political fate could hang on the outcome.
An independent Scotland would no longer send MPs to Westminster and Mr Miliband would lose some of the party’s most bankable seats: at the last election Labour won 40 out of 59 Scottish seats. Mr Miliband’s potential Commons majority is on the line.
Mr Miliband came to Blantyre, a former mining town in Labour’s west of Scotland heartland, with opinion polls suggesting the September 18 vote could be very tight. “We all feel a huge sense of responsibility,” he admitted.
For Labour, that responsibility takes several forms. The party makes up by far the biggest part of the cross-party Better Together campaign, and Mr Miliband said he was proud of “the biggest ground operation” his party had ever waged in any election.
It was Labour that created the Scottish parliament in 1997 as a means of heading off calls for independence: instead, Holyrood provided the platform and the mandate for Alex Salmond to call his referendum.
And it was Labour in 2011 that threw away a huge poll lead in the Holyrood elections and let in Mr Salmond’s Scottish National party, in spite of designing a proportional electoral system intended specifically to stop such an outcome.
Meanwhile, Labour’s biggest figures – such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid and Alistair Darling – continued to pursue their careers at Westminster, leaving the way clear for Mr Salmond’s ascendancy.
“The worst charge that could be levelled against us is that we took voters for granted,” said Johann Lamont, Labour’s Scottish leader, standing outside the Blantyre miners’ welfare centre. “On my watch that won’t happen,” she said.
The other pro-union parties must share their responsibility, too. The Conservatives have lost touch with much of Scotland during the past 30 years and only hold one Westminster seat; the Liberal Democrats are a faded force.
But Scotland is traditionally Labour and Mr Miliband is faced with awkward polls suggesting that 30 per cent of his party’s supporters are planning to vote Yes. The Labour leader admitted the campaign had reached “a very important moment”.
Mr Salmond has made the running in the final weeks of the campaign by arguing that Scotland is essentially a progressive, left-leaning country and that only self-rule can prevent social and NHS cuts by a distant Tory administration.
The Labour leader was unusually passionate as he insisted to a loyal audience in Blantyre that “the Tories are on their way out” and that Scots had no need to vote for independence to get rid of David Cameron.
Mr Miliband claimed that a Labour government at Westminster was a better guarantor of social justice than an SNP administration at Holyrood, vowing that he would scrap the “bedroom tax”, reinstate the 50p top rate of tax and freeze energy bills.
He also argued that the only “redistributive policy” offered by Mr Salmond was a 3p cut in corporation tax for “big business”, which he claimed would be paid for by Scotland’s poorest.
Although Mr Miliband argues that Mr Salmond has made “a strategic error” by claiming that independence was the best route to social justice, Better Together insiders admit that his argument has cut through to traditional Labour voters.
The fate of the No campaign now rests largely on whether Mr Miliband, Labour party workers on the doorstep and other big names including Mr Brown can seize back the initiative and bring back the Labour vote.
In this increasingly raw street-by-street battle between the Yes and No sides – fought predominantly but not exclusively in the Glasgow conurbation – there is little role for Mr Cameron.
The prime minister is only expected to make one more visit to Scotland before polling day, even though he knows that a Yes vote would probably make the first line on his political epitaph: the prime minister who lost the union.
Mr Miliband attempted to make a start on Thursday but ran immediately into the kind of robust tactics by the Yes campaign that Labour officials claim has tipped into intimidation – a claim rejected by Mr Salmond.
As the Labour leader left the Blantyre miners’ centre to meet voters, a small group of Yes campaigners crowded into every camera shot, a saltire the backdrop to every television image. “What are you doing in Blantyre?” heckled a man who arrived on the scene on a motorcycle.
After meeting a total of five voters – three of them in a passing car – Mr Miliband’s minders directed him on to a bus and he was gone.