It's started

The Labour fightback begins

A week is a long time in polling coverage, especially at the Guardian/Observer.

First, the Guardian -- which, along with the Sun, has declared that Labour cannot win under Gordon Brown -- managed rather awkwardly to present a poll showing a two-point fall for the Tories and a two-point bounce for Labour as a triumph for David Cameron.

Then, only days later, a poll in the Observer (carried out at the same time as the Guardian poll and published yesterday) showed that Labour has closed the gap to only 6 points, with 31 per cent against the Tories' 37.

It is the poll Gordon Brown has been waiting for.

Suddenly, and belatedly as usual, it has become the conventional wisdom to talk of a hung parliament. Now, some of us have been arguing for months that this is likely. My colleague Mehdi Hasan and I went into it in some detail back in June, when Mehdi was, if anything, surer. (I thought then and -- shock horror -- still think now, that a small overall majority for Labour is the most likely outcome.)

Indeed, yesterday's poll and the apparent trend reminded me that, after I dared to suggest in my New Year predictions (some wrong, some right), that the two main parties' positions in the polls would switch by the end of this year, Iain Dale, the amiable and popular partisan Conservative blogger, reacted with "cackling laughter" and said: "In your dreams, sunshine."

In fact, private polling commissioned by No 10 is today showing just that.

UPDATE: The right-wing blogosphere, often loose with the facts, is once again misinterpreting what I said. I did not say there is polling showing that Labour is now "ahead". I said, and you can see it above, that private polling is showing a trend that will show a reversal of the parties' fortunes by the end of the year. OK? I hope this is clear to those who cannot see the difference between the journalistic view that Labour could still win -- a view apparently shared by David Cameron, incidentally -- and supposed Labour "spin".

 

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.