A good week for Gordon Brown

Three pieces of good news for Brown

So, despite the vehement campaign against him by Britain's biggest-selling daily paper, this has turned into a good week for Gordon Brown. It may have been unthinkable for Labour not to win last night's by-election in Glasgow North-East, a seat it has held for 74 years, but few expected the party to triumph by the margin it did.

The by-election victory was the third piece of good news Brown has had this week. First, a Times/Populus poll on Tuesday demonstrated that a hung parliament remains a distinct possibility at the next election. The Conservatives' lead of 10 points would translate into a Commons majority of only two.

Second, a PoliticsHome poll revealed that 65 per cent of voters believe the Sun's reporting of Brown's letter to Jacqui Janes became an "inappropriate attack", and that almost half of the electorate is now more inclined to defend the Prime Minister.

Perhaps buoyed by these figures and the by-election success, Brown gave the most articulate and fluid performance I've heard from him for weeks on the Today programme this morning.

Professor John Curtice noted the key to Labour's success last night when he observed: "They fought as the opposition to the SNP." But he provided a sober dose of reality when he pointed out: "The recipe for success in Glasgow is not one that can be repeated in England and Wales."

Lord Mandelson and Harriet Harman have attempted to mount an insurgent campaign by consistently referring to Labour as the "underdog". But in England at least, the party continues to be seen as the establishment.

In order to change this, Labour must gamble on a referendum on electoral reform before the next election. The Conservatives remain wedded to the unjust first-past-the-post system. Perhaps on this issue alone, David Cameron would be left defending the status quo.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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