Alex Salmond is the winner from the Scottish independence referendum deal

The agreement to hold the vote in 2014 is a major victory for the Scottish First Minister.

Commentators were quick to declare David Cameron the winner from the Scottish independence referendum deal, but it's actually Alex Salmond who has gained the most. As a result of the agreement, the Scottish First Minister will be able to hold the referendum in 2014, his long preferred date. The UK government originally insisted that it would only give Scotland the legal authority to stage a binding vote if it was held by September 2013, but it dropped this demand in return for Salmond agreeing to a one-question referendum. While Salmond would have preferred a "devo-max" option to be included on the ballot paper (as a potential consolation prize), the decision to postpone the vote until 2014 (the SNP has until the end of that year) gives him what he needs most: time.

With the Yes campaign trailing by 25-points in the latest poll, Salmond now has more than two years to bring the voters round to his side. By 2014, he hopes that the full force of the coalition's austerity measures, most of which have yet to be implemented, will have persuaded Scotland that the time is right to go it alone. With the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, Salmond always knew that 2012 would be a tough year for the independence cause. But 2014, which will see Scotland celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and host the Commonwealth games and the Ryder Cup, will provide multiple opportunities for the SNP to stoke nationalist fervour.

While the decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote is of little significance (polls suggest that they are as opposed to independence as the rest of the Scottish public), Cameron's willingness to allow Salmond to delay the vote until 2014 is a major concession. After a year which has seen the odds continually lengthen against independence, the SNP finally has some cause for hope.

David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond meet on the steps of St Andrews House before agreeing a deal on a Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.